Shoreline Master Program needs updates to protect marine habitat

It’s back to the drawing board for San Juan County’s Shoreline Master Program.

The county is making required changes to its previously approved SMP as Friends of the San Juans continues to fight to preserve marine habitat along the islands’ 400 miles of shore.

“Our San Juan Island shorelines are an essential part of the Salish Sea ecosystem on which orca whales depend,” said Janet Alderton, Friends of the San Juans board vice president. “Over time the cumulative burden of shoreline modifications are sending the orca whales that we treasure closer to extinction. If we wish to save the wild orcas from extinction, we must preserve our wild shorelines and restore degraded shorelines.”

Representatives and supporters of Friends of the San Juans emphasized their concerns with the SMP to both the County Council and planning commission during a joint meeting on Aug. 17 in Friday Harbor. Friends prepared and submitted 17 pages of proposed amendments to the council. Another public hearing on the topic is scheduled for Sept. 21 on Lopez.

The SMP is a required document under the state Shoreline Management Act, adopted in Washington in 1972. An update is required every eight years, and the county’s was last updated in 1998. The SMP dictates what kind of development is allowed, protects sensitive areas and promotes public access to the shore. It applies to land 200 feet inland from the ordinary high water mark and then seaward from the ordinary high water mark to the county line.

Council adopted the SMP in April 2017 and it was then sent to the state Department of Ecology, which approved it last October. In December, Friends of the San Juans challenged the DOE’s decision, and the appeal was reviewed by The Western Washington Region Growth Management Hearings Board. In June, the board concluded that some elements of the SMP violated state codes and directed the county to comply with the Shorelines Management Act. The next step is for the county to adopt a revised SMP that will then be sent to the Department of Ecology for approval, which must be done by the end of 2018. The county has until Oct. 11 to comply with the growth management board’s findings. Any objections to the county’s efforts to comply are due on Nov. 8, with the county’s response to those objections due Nov. 19. A telephonic compliance hearing is scheduled for 9 a.m. on Dec. 3. Of the seven issues that Friends of the San Juans appealed in the SMP, the growth management hearings board found three components of the adopted plan to be noncompliant: environmental impact mitigation; shoreline stabilization; and evaluation of the cumulative impacts of authorized development. According to Friends, its list of suggested amendments would resolve the noncompliant sections.

“We’ve been wanting to get it right, not just get it done. We have to be bold; we have to get it right,” said Friends Executive Director Stephanie Buffum. “We’re here to advocate for changes …”

Friends’ Board President San Olson recounted the 17 days during which Southern resident killer whale J35, also known as Tahlequah, carried her deceased calf with her. He said that the orcas are “speaking to us and we need to listen.”

“We no longer have the luxury of time to change the trajectory of the decline of our orca,” Olson said. “We must take bold, uncomfortable and even heretical measures to ensure the reversal of the peril that these whales are in.”

According to the Friends’ letter, the most important thing the community can do is be stewards of the county’s marine shorelines and support the recovery of Chinook salmon, which is the Southern resident killer whales’ primary food source.

“You need to figure out a way to ensure that we’re not going to impact the functions – the ecological functions – that provide for forage fish spawning beaches, that provide for food for Chinook salmon, that provide for food for the Southern resident killer whales,” said Lovel Pratt, marine protection program director for Friends. “It really is that direct of a connection to this issue that has national attention right now. And you all are the decision-makers; you’re the masters of this universe of San Juan County, and you have the opportunity to make decisions here that can make a difference.”