Pearl Island dock permit overturned

This time around, the state Shorelines Hearing Board was not so generous.

In fact, the Hearing Board took San Juan County to task in an Aug. 25 ruling for its failure to protect shorelines of “statewide significance” as well as a healthy swath of eelgrass just off the northwest tip of Pearl Island.

In its decision, the board noted the county put the fate of that eelgrass bed in jeopardy by approving a permit which allowed a 98-foot dock to be built above it. In overturning the permit, issued Feb. 1 to Christopher Hughes of San Juan Island, the board decided the dock was more convenience than necessity, and that Hughes had not demonstrated all other options of accessing his undeveloped, half-acre lot on Pearl Island had been exhausted.

“On balance, Mr. Hughes’ desire for convenience does not outweigh the public’s interest in preservation of fragile off-shore environment,” the board concluded in a far-reaching 30-page decision. “In this case, the county’s issuance of the (permit) failed to adequately protect the state’s interest in the land, vegetation, wildlife, waters, and aquatic life around Pearl Island.”

The Hearing Board handed down its ruling following a two-day hearing at Roche Harbor Resort in early July. It determined that a condition of the permit — a so-called “off-site mitigation plan” requiring that an illegal mooring buoy in Mosquito Pass, about a mile away, be removed and that a bed of eelgrass damaged by its anchor was on the mend — did not outweigh local shoreline rules.

However, according to Friday Harbor attorney Stephanie O’Day, who represented Hughes in the case, its assessment of the mitigation plan is just one example of the many missteps made by the Hearing Board in reaching its decision. She said the ruling demonstrates its lack of understanding of local rules, its failure to review the case with “neutral eyes” and accused it of “legislating from the bench.”

O’Day said Hughes will appeal the ruling in San Juan County Superior Court.

“My client went far beyond the call of duty not only in reducing its impacts but in agreeing to restore three times as much eelgrass as might be affected by this small dock,” she said.

The Hearing Board had heard arguments for and against the dock twice before, in response to a pair of appeals. It initially backed off ruling on the permit and instead allowed Hughes time to revise the dock’s blueprints and to craft an agreement with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife for mitigating its impact.

The dock’s initial design was revised in conjunction with Fish and Wildlife’s “experimental dock” program. That program, which, at the request of the County Council has since been discontinued in the San Juans, gave rise to the off-site mitigation pact as well.

Friends of the San Juans, which contested the agreement at the state and at the local level, launched another appeal after the permit was approved in February. No provision in local rules, according to Friends’ attorney Kyle Loring, allows for docks to approved by trading one bed of eelgrass for another.

“This decision confirms our community’s belief that development here must meet the rigorous protections established by state law and our county code,” Loring said in a prepared statement.

“While we applaud the landowner for removing an illegal mooring buoy from an eelgrass bed, merely abating a distant, illegal impact did not justify allowing this dock over healthy eelgrass, under either the rule of law or the rule of common sense.”