Opinion

Update of CAO will protect against impact of future growth | Guest Column

By Richard/Rita Weisbrod

What is the problem that the new Critical Areas Ordinance process will fix?

“What did we do wrong? We followed the rules.”

As a local land surveyor and land use consultant since the 1970s, Tom Starr ("CAO: big fix for undefined problem", Journal, April 25, pg. 8), and other recent writers, question the need for new ordinances to protect critical areas for the future. To answer, we should note that no blame is being placed on anyone for past actions. We cannot re-write the past, but when things change, policies must adapt to those changes.   

If you viewed the San Juan Islands from the air, as we did many times over these years, the difference from 1970 to the present is dramatic. In fact, population growth in San Juan County has been explosive.

U.S. Census data for San Juan County shows the population in the county was essentially stable at around 3,000 people from 1900 up to 1960, when the economy centered on agriculture and natural resources (fishing, logging). In 1970, the population was 3,856, doubling to 7,838 by 1980, then increasing to 10,035 by l990, to 14,077 by 2000, and to just under 16,000 in 2010.

Looking at housing units in the county, 66 percent have been built since 1970 (and 23 percent of these since 1990).

What has been the result on the land of this increase in population? Deforestation, increased water use, increased sewage volume, increased herbicide and pesticide use, more roads and trails, more paving of the land surface, and more shoreline developments, including more stairways and docks.

History is full of examples of civilizations that flourished and then disappeared because they ran out of necessary resources. As a county of islands our resources are very limited, and we need to husband what we have left. Water in our dry summers is now a problem we all live with.  

The problem is not that any one of us alone has caused any specific environmental change that has occurred. It is the combined impact of all of us that has changed the islands. Garrett J. Hardin called this effect the “Tragedy of the Commons.”

An example is False Bay on San Juan Island [the largest watershed in the county]. When we arrived in the early l970s, sand dollars were common, and eel grass reached well into tidal streams; there were many species adapted to sandy substrates where children played and built sand castles at low tides.

What do we see now? The sand dollars are gone, none since the late 1990s, and eel grass is restricted to the bay’s mouth. The bay has silted in from run-off, mostly from the now seasonal False Bay Creek (a former salmon stream) and smaller temporary streams. Now we have a mud-silt tide flat with very different species.

This degradation of False Bay did not occur because of what any who live on False Bay did, nor is it a result of the development actions of any one person or any one development within the watershed. It is the result of accumulated impacts from many individual sources.  

We need to look ahead to resources we will all need in the future, and we must begin where we are now, not as we were at some point 30 or 40 years in the past.

What the CAO process must do for future development is try to minimize further damage and mitigate environmental change that will protect the critical resources we share and leave them intact for coming generations. We need new regulations because the land and its resources have changed. We have changed it—collectively.

While it is true that land use regulation restricts your freedom to do what you personally want to do with your land, that same land use regulation also protects you from the harm that your neighbors can do to your land and to our shared critical resource areas... the commons.

Richard/Rita Weisbrod, San Juan Island

— Editor's note: Rita Weisbrod is a professor of sociology, emeritus; Richard Weisbrod retired from the US Geological Survey as a research zoologist.

 

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