Navy easement could block industry on Hood Canal

An easement requested by the Navy to prevent industrial development along the western shoreline of Hood Canal appears to be the first of its kind in Washington state.

One can envision this easement as a strip of underwater area from the Hood Canal bridge south to a spot just south of the Jefferson-Mason County line near Eldon, as I described in a Kitsap Sun story on May 15.

Easement

In most areas, the protected bedlands will be defined by their depths, from 18 feet below the average low tide to 70 feet down. More than 4,000 acres of state-owned bedlands would be covered by the easement.

“The practical effect of the agreement will be to preclude new near-shore commercial or industrial construction along the areas of the Hood Canal and neighboring waterways managed by DNR where the Navy operates,” states a joint press release issued by the Navy along with the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

It was quickly recognized that this could mean the end of the controversial pit-to-pier project for loading gravel onto ships and barges. If the developer, Thorndyke Resource, is unable to obtain a state lease for the proposed pier, the project would be dead in the water. The company, which has been working on the project for years, does not intend to give up without a fight.

Since the story first came out, the Navy has been preparing to conduct an appraisal, which will involve hiring an independent contractor, according to Liane Nakahara, spokeswoman for Navy Region Northwest. Once the appraisal work begins, it will take at least a couple months to complete, she said. Then the Navy and DNR must each approve the appraisal results.

I can’t imagine how difficult it will be to estimate how much money the state could lose by locking up this strip of underwater area for decades. If the pit-to-pier project were a certainty, then it would be easier to figure out how much revenue the state would lose by blocking that one lease. But what would be the probability of the pit-to-pier project getting all the required permits if the easement were not a factor?

What other types of development would be foreclosed by the Navy’s easement along Hood Canal, and where might these projects be located? If one could assume that the Jefferson County shoreline of Hood Canal would never be developed with marinas or piers anyway, then the loss would be zero and the Navy’s easement would be cheap. These are the questions that will drive an appraiser crazy.

Conservation easements are often done on forestland to keep the land from being developed while allowing some type of prescribed logging. But those easements usually involve a private landowner with a sense about when his land might be developed and what it might be worth on the market. Trading his future prospects for cash is a personal and financial consideration, and the purchaser of the easement can look around at other prospects.

The motivations of state and federal officials in a transaction like this can be multiple, even political sometimes. Without true market conditions at play, the value of the easement could be very difficult to calculate — and probably easy to challenge. Under the Washington State Constitution, the state cannot relinquish its property without fair compensation.

I’ll probably be accused of getting ahead of this story, but what first sounded like a great idea to preserve Hood Canal and protect the Navy’s operations may not be so easy to pull off.

On the other hand, it appears that this transaction may avoid the typical environmental review required for leasing state bedlands, because there is no environmental impact without any development. The economic impacts are another issue and may require some type of analysis beyond the appraisal itself.

The Navy considers the proposed easement to be part of the Readiness and Environmental Protection Integration (REPI) Program for the Dabob Range Complex. The Navy has purchased easements through a partnership with The Nature Conservancy. Recall the story by reporter Ed Friedrich, Kitsap Sun, Oct. 8, 2011.

The Dabob Range Complex, which was expanded a few years ago, includes “military operations areas” for training and testing in north and central Hood Canal. By restricting future development, the Navy hopes to maintain a relatively open waterway for its operations. From the Department of Defense REPI website:

“If military installations are to remain active and contributing economic participants in their communities, the installations must have the space necessary to successfully accomplish their test and training missions. Therefore, efforts to limit incompatible development and preserve habitat are vital to maintaining readiness and protecting valuable national assets.”

I asked Liane Nakahara what “incompatible development” means to the Navy, and she offered this written response:

“Incompatible development is any type, size, or intensity of development that would potentially cause interruptions, changes, deviations, or curtailment of Navy operations on Ranges, Military Operating Areas or installations. The location and proximity of development to Military Operations will also factor into the compatibility review. As with any type of land-use planning, location is key. A particular type of development may be compatible in one location but incompatible in another.”

Vessel traffic, noise and security in the enclosed area of Hood Canal are all important considerations for the Navy.

A REPI fact sheet (PDF 745 kb) describes the Dabob Bay Range Complex. Navy officials say they will add information about the proposed easement at an appropriate time. To learn more about the REPI program, download the 2013 Report to Congress.

2 thoughts on “Navy easement could block industry on Hood Canal

  1. Vessel traffic through the Hood Canal Bridge requiring bridge closure is quite onerous now with the current population and level of industrial development on the Jefferson County side of Hood Canal. Much of an increase in ship traffic beyond current use would render use of a floating bridge design impractical. Are we prepared to fund and build a high-rise static bridge across Hood Canal? If this conservation easement would eliminate the need for a new bridge, I am in favor of it.

  2. We feel that development should be considered by a case by case basis similar to the conveyor to barge gravel pit development. Sure, there will be more bridge openings for marine traffic. The Navy wouldn’t want any constructive development to be liable for if there are any more Port Royal or induced damage incidents from their carelessness – we’re still recovering from the washed up oysters and beach erosion from that event. Oh – what International shipping company imported the invasive mahogany clams that are infesting Hood Canal? Is the Navy under the same constraints as private boaters for biolife contamination?
    Anyway, we feel it is best to leave this ownership of the 18-70 foot sea bed out of the hands of the Navy as the State will most likely loose the control of management and not be ready when the Navy releases interest. We do not consider giving the Navy any additional control over state resources to be an effective environmental benefit.

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