We are looking in the wrong direction for a solution to our environmental problems | Guest Column


I attended the June 10 meeting with the presentation by Doug Peters of the Washington Department of Commerce on the GMA requirements for completion of the Critical Area Ordinance update.

Sam Buck asked, “What is the problem with our critical areas that has been defined? It is like we are being given some medicine for a problem that does not exist?” The answer was that there has not been a problem defined. Then, I had the following questions, which related to that line of reasoning:

1. Please explain how “increasing” building setbacks will solve the following main causes of water pollution: PCBs from fire-retardant run-off, raw sewage from Victoria, B.C., leaking septic systems, plastic garbage break-down entering our food chain, heavy toxic metals from air pollution and agricultural fertilizers? These sources of pollution have far greater impact on our environment and increasing building setbacks does not seem to address these issues. What scientific studies have been done to prove that increasing building setbacks improves pollution affecting critical areas? Answer = “Can’t point to specific studies.”

2. If increasing the salmon population is the main “goal,” then why not have a moratorium on salmon fishing instead of taking away property rights? Answer = “Good question. Maybe stop eating salmon.” This was not the answer I was hoping for.

Another person asked:

3. If agriculture is exempt from these restrictions, and is proven to be the main source of pollution, what can be done? Answer = “Can’t answer that question.”

4. What baseline criteria is being used for San Juan County? Answer = “Can’t answer that question.”

So why do we think we have a problem? Not only do we have buffers currently, but we also have set aside land with the Land Bank, Preservation Trust and conservation easements. They need to use scientific research to find the problem, and they have hired expensive consultants to do that. Unfortunately, we are spending time and money that we could be spending on fixing the dump, to find a problem that may not exist because of anything we are doing due to setbacks from critical areas.

Our existing setbacks and regulations are doing a great job of protecting our environment. If the setbacks get increased from 100 to 230 feet (as proposed by the Friends of the San Juans), many homeowners will not be able to insure their properties, be able to build or re-build if their home burned down, or get re-financing if their property is condemned by this ordinance. This would make any lot or home in that buffer nonconforming.

Randy Gaylord downplayed the idea. "Non-conforming" is like being “Grandfathered in,” when in fact "non-conforming" means it will go away eventually and not be able to be used. This may affect not just shoreline lots, but also all forested lots considered “Critical Habitat.”

Here are some other suggestions our county can use to combat pollutants:

— Spend the money on soils tests around all septic leach fields and ban “toxic building materials,” like all copper roofing and downspouts that leach toxic heavy metals into the aquifer (yes, copper is a heavy toxic metal. Put copper pennies in a pond and you kill the fish).

— Ban all chemical fertilizers and pesticides from being sold or imported onto the islands.

— Only sell non-toxic cleaners in all stores and ban the use of any toxic cleaning products.

These are real solutions that can be adopted now.

There are so many ways that we can reduce environmental hazards on our islands, and we are looking in the wrong direction for a solution. Figuring out a way to “restrict land use” is not the direction that we should be expending our energies on. If restoring the salmon population is so important, then we need to put bans on wild salmon fishing (not a popular solution but the real answer for the orcas’ survival).

There are ways to reduce pollution and increase fish populations while retaining private property rights. We need to look at the goals, the problems need to be identified and real solutions to those problems put into place.

Please tell our council members to not put further restrictions on setbacks that are already in place. We are not required to designate additional critical areas, so please let the council members know how you want them to “not increase” the critical areas.

— Nina Le Baron, AIA, is a registered architect in Washington and California. She is the owner of Island Architecture, www.islandarchitecture.net

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