Best available science—worst available zoning | Guest Opinion

Don Pollard - Contributed photo
Don Pollard
— image credit: Contributed photo

By Don Pollard

It’s easy to get angry these days, particularly if you attend meetings of the county Planning Commission.

Yet the individuals who give their time as commissioners deserve our sympathy for enduring hours of outraged testimony from irate citizens. They have been served up such a poor job of staff work, that there must be frustration on both sides of the podium.

Back in the days when we all used to be friends, we could agree about island concerns and set about solving problems together. But then the handmaidens of the Friends of the San Juans in the planning department decided that science could rescue us. They forgot that their job was to provide a plan that would guide rather than goad.

Entranced by the possibility that a cut and paste plan could be provided by a consultant, they started down a bumpy road. By the time they got to wetlands regulation, they were sure science was unquestionably on their side.

The euphoria of casting a net of regulation over the entire county became too heady to consider one thing. Science can tell you what may happen, but it cannot tell you what you should do about it.

There is little doubt that science can and must be an essential part of how we plan today and into the distant future. We are incredibly blessed in the islands with the brilliant minds of scientists at the UW Friday Harbor Labs. They have their heads on straight. And even the planners’ star witness at public hearings has told the staff that there is no science that supports the use of buffers, a point of feverish contention.

The planning commission is likely to send to the county council a plan that is absent any serious consideration of the financial impact to the county for staffing administration of the new set of regulations. Totally ignored is any consideration of the cost to property owners faced with the requirements of the ordinance.

Based on the overwhelming opposition at hearings on every major island, the planning commission members must wonder how quickly such an ordinance will be in court and how costly it could be to the county. The intensity of opposition cannot have been wasted on the county council members who understand how a recall can get started.

Remember when we all used to be friends? Isn’t there something that can be done to get us back to working together?  Yes, Virginia. There is.

The basic fault of the planners approach is that it shifts from the county to the property owner the responsibility to prove that they adhere to the proposed regulations, no matter how much it may cost.

For example, public hearing pressure alerted the planning commission to the fact that many ponds on the islands are man made and should not be subject to regulation as wetlands. This seems simple, but for unknown reasons, the planners decided that if there had been wetlands at the location of the existing man made pond, then it would fall under the wetlands ordinance. Go figure how you can determine if there once was a wetland at the bottom of a man-made pond.

Historically, government needs to known what it is regulating. To do this it adopts ordinances that clearly identify properties that are subject to the regulation and justify why the regulation is needed. There are rules of public notice and hearings that need to be followed and there are guidelines to avoid overregulation to the point of eliminating a property owner’s use of his/her land.

Because of these safeguards to the public, governments must proceed reasonably or risk the heavy costs of litigation and inverse condemnation. As frustrating as it may be, there are reasons for government to move slowly and wisely. Herein lies a possible direction for a different course for our county.

First the county needs to get its act together through leadership.

Ordinances with wide-sweeping effects need to be examined not just by the planning department, but also by the county administrator, the county auditor and the county prosecuting attorney. Not only should the regulations be legal, they should be enforceable. This implies annual appropriations for administration and enforcement, just as criminal laws require similar annual budgets. At present there is no appropriation for the administration and enforcement of this complicated ordinance.

Second, rather than casting a regulatory net over the entire county, the council should instruct the planning staff to consider only programs that can be carried out within the constraints of available funds. This will quickly show that had the planners taken more measured and thoughtful steps in line with what can be funded, they also might have found less opposition.

Finally, a new incremental plan phased over a number of years would reasonably accomplish the goals of environmental protection and accurately relate to the county’s budgeting process. The program would begin by inventorying all areas of concern and identifying them on maps.

Annually, the planning work program would address specific areas by defining their boundaries, researching actual mitigation solutions, and developing specific regulations for those selected areas. In following years as funds are available, subsequent areas of concern would be addressed until a comprehensive and accurate environmental program for all areas was accomplished.

Each year of the plan would include just those elements, such as wetlands, that could be studied and appropriately addressed.  By using such a measured approach, it would be difficult to stand in opposition to a well-crafted regulation, grounded in scientific research, and clearly identified on a map.

For those members of the county council who have been urging the planning department to hurry up the process and get it to the council, there is the old adage, “God punishes us by granting our prayers!”

— Editor's note: A 20-year resident of San Juan Island, Don Pollard is a former public and city administrator.


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