Organizations resist ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to land use regulations in San Juan County

A perceived one-size-fits-all approach to land use regulations in San Juan County is meeting stiff resistance from two growing groups in the islands — the Common Sense Alliance, headed by Planning Commissioner Mike Carlson, and the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights, directed by Frank Penwell.

The organizations invited islanders to a dinner and potluck dessert at the San Juan Island Grange Nov. 3. A short video of County Council deliberations on the subject at hand didn’t do much to excite the audience — the sound was inaudible and the facial motions didn’t mesh with the words spoken.

Prior to introducing the speakers, Penwell asked the audience to “be educators and share what you hear.”

The presentation, one of several hosted by the groups, was held as the county works to update its Critical Areas Ordinance. That ordinance could effect how we develop near our shorelines.

John Evans — who served as a county commissioner for 12 years and county fair board chairman for six — led off. As a farmer (with wife Wanda) and nurseryman for 25 years on Orcas Island, he believes in conservation and sustainability as it relates to our environment … and he believes that the vast majority of the islanders he knows do the same.

“Non-conformance is the big issue, and that can be lessened by revisiting ordinances with common sense,” he said. “All in all, we have clean air, the cleanest salt water, and with the trees coming back (we are) a great pace-setter for the Puget Sound, even though farming has lessened.”

Evans actively defends what he calls an owner’s right to the reasonable and responsible use of his or her private property.

Bob Levinson, a professional engineer with 40 years of local experience in geotechnical, environmental and wetland studies, challenged the “Best Available Science” label that often is injected into shoreline stabilization regulations. He said we have 88 percent of natural shoreline in the county and he doesn’t feel the sky has fallen on the 12 percent that might be developed.

Levinson said “bulkheads on shorelines have not been scientifically proven to always have adverse effects.” He said the dreaded eelgrass “no-noes” are not scientifically understood by unanimous scientific research. He cited 700 sites in south Puget Sound that had no ill effects from development, according to one long-term study.

Richard Civille, a professional fund-raiser for 15 years in Washington, D.C., was first director of the San Juan County Economic Development Council and now is managing a public-private partnership constructing a new 21st century library in Whatcom County. He believes in local control of many of the tenets of the Growth Management Act. He tried to interpret the governmental and quasi-governmental units with which the citizen who wants to do something or prevent something might be involved — federal, state, county, city, town and quasi in-between. It was more depressive than impressive.

Gordy Petersen (with his wife Lori) operated two grocery stores, one on Orcas and one in Friday Harbor, for two decades. They even caught fish for their stores while going to and from work. He has served on many boards and committees, including chairman of the county Planning Commission. He was elected freeholder from District 1 and has degrees in philosophy and religion.

“What are we working for?” was Petersen’s topic. “Our local plan leaves property owners out of the process,” he said. “We are against reducing what is defined as ‘reasonable’ use. Reasonable use is timeless. CAPR will fight unfairly prescribed buffers. We are looking for Best Available Science based on our local environs.”

He added, “Eighty percent of the world’s food (e.g. rice) is grown in water,” and wondered why we can’t plant fruit trees in some wet areas. He also wants a new definition of “non-conforming use.”

Carlson of the Common Sense Alliance talked of how we husband our resources on this island. He told of how he drives by his neighbor’s “island-scale concrete and construction operation” on a daily basis. Carlson wonders if anyone has tested the functions and values of the wetland/lake that is next to this operation. His impression is that all functions and values appear to be intact, including water quality. He said the Town of Friday Harbor receives drinking water from this same wetland.

Carlson said a horrendous legal battle would be required to allow this business to operate today.

Sam Buck Jr. of Coldwell Banker San Juan Island was asked by the panel about the effects on real estate of current issues, such as affordable housing. He said housing-density reductions through the GMA has cost the county the equivalent of 15,000 lots, some of which might have been used for affordable housing.

“Eventually, only the very wealthy will be able to live and or work here if a better balance is not achieved,” he said.

Karrie Cooper of Friends of the San Juans urged all of the crowd to attend public discussions on these subjects sponsored by the San Juan County Council, with tours which started Nov. 10 on San Juan Island and will continue Nov. 11 and next week on Orcas and Lopez. Discussion groups will be held at 5:30 after each tour.