It is without dispute that the San Juan County is to review the current critical areas ordinance and “include the best available science” in the update of its regulations (RCW 36.70A.172). One of the most glaring problems with the draft ordinance is that the county is incontestably in possession of better available science.
The proposed ordinance maps wetlands using a LIDAR survey which measures geographic contours. This technology does not define with any precision the boundaries of wetlands. In fact, in many areas, this technology erroneously identifies wetlands which, after physical inspection, do not actually exist. In simple terms, the critical areas wetlands as identified in the proposed CAO can only charitably be described as “approximate”.
It is ironic that better scientific data exists and is already in the possession of the county. Simply, over the past decades property owners have, at the county’s request, conducted professional surveys of wetland boundaries. Often property owners are burdened by smaller buffers if they have a wetland professionally delineated. This situation is more or less symbiotic. The property owner gets more leeway on where she can develop — buffers decrease by half in many cases — and the county gets a better understanding of where the critical areas actually lie from a “boots on the ground” survey performed by a professional geologist or wetland specialist at the landowner’s expense.
The problem with the proposed ordinance’s reliance on LIDAR surveys is that it discards decades of data from site surveys and relies on LIDAR contour data, assumes any depression is a wetland, and shifts the burden of proving the non-existence of a wetland on the landowner. It would seem to me that the council, at a minimum, needs to amend the proposed wetlands maps to conform to the data generated by hundreds of these on-site surveys.
It is one thing to parrot that the county is following the “best available science,” it is quite another to actually do it. The council is needlessly exposing itself to liability by ignoring the decades of data already in its possession by reverting to the less exact surveys.
Alexandra Gavora, San Juan Island