Tag Archives: Growth Management Act

Protecting the Puget Sound ecosystem involves urban planning

I often write about Puget Sound restoration, sometimes forgetting to include the word “protection.” It really should be “Puget Sound protection and restoration” — with protection getting the first billing and the highest priority in our thinking.

Puget Sound from space // Image: NASA

Protection isn’t very exciting — not like restoring hundreds of acres of degraded estuaries, floodplains and wetlands. Of course, restoration is absolutely necessary to gain back lost habitat, but the immediate result is never as good as habitat that avoided damage in the first place. Even restored habitat generally needs to be protected for a long time before it functions as well as an undisturbed site.

These are issues I have been pondering as I wrote the latest story in a series about Implementation Strategies — a focused effort to make a measurable improvement in the Puget Sound ecosystem. For details, check out the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound.

If we could freeze everything in place, then habitat restoration would help rebuild the fish and wildlife populations that require special conditions. But we cannot stop time, and we are told that 1.5 million more people will soon be living in the Puget Sound region.

Where can all these future people find homes without further degrading the environment? Will they choose to live in places that minimize the ecological damage or will it even matter to them? Needless to say, this remains an open-ended question — a question that is both public and very personal, touching on issues of freedom and property rights.

I hope that we, as Puget Sound residents, can work together on this problem with open eyes and clear thinking. The state’s Growth Management Act has helped protect natural habitat by encouraging higher housing densities in urban areas. But the GMA has not been able to cope with economic and lifestyle pressures that cause people to live in remote areas where their mere presence disturbs the functioning food web.

It’s not an easy problem to solve, but researchers and policy experts familiar with the issue have put their thoughts together to formulate a draft “Land Development and Land Cover Implementation Strategy.” I outlined the draft in a story titled “Urban lifestyles help to protect the Puget Sound ecosystem,” published this week in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound. More work is planned before the strategy is finalized.

Ecologically important lands identified in the Puget Sound region. (Click to enlarge) // Map: WDFW

“I think the central battle will be in the urban areas,” Doug Peters told me, reflecting his understanding that higher-density communities are needed to protect intact habitat elsewhere. Doug, a watershed planner with the Washington State Department of Commerce, said development innovations and economic incentives could be needed to address the problem.

As I said at the outset, Puget Sound restoration seems to get the most attention. Meanwhile, the notion of protection may call to mind buying up ecologically sensitive lands or else purchasing conservation easements or development rights. But it is equally important to make plans for where we want people to live and to make sure these places are inviting enough to attract future residents.

In a region with wide-open spaces, this kind of planning does not have much appeal, and it is not the way we normally do things in this country. But, as Benjamin Franklin might say, “By failing to plan, you are planning to fail.”

Court finds resolution for conflicting shoreline regs

The conflict between the Growth Management Act and the Shoreline Management Act may be over, as a result of a Washington State Court of Appeals case handed down this week for Kitsap County. (See my story in today’s Kitsap Sun.)

The confusion has affected many cities and counties that believed they were better protecting their shorelines from degradation when they updated their critical areas ordinances, as required by the Growth Management Act. It turns out that the GMA may have improperly stepped into the 200-foot shoreline zone where the Shoreline Management Act presides.

The conflict grew out of a divided Washington State Supreme Court decision for the city of Anacortes, which concluded that only the Shorelines Management Act could govern shorelines. By the time the case was resolved in 2009, many cities and counties had already updated their local critical areas ordinances with stricter shoreline regulations.

Washington Department of Ecology advised local governments to continue using their CAO rules for shorelines, because the divided decision was not binding on other jurisdictions. That advice caused a stir of its own. (See Water Ways, Nov. 3, 2009.) Kitsap County got caught in the crossfire in a lawsuit with the Kitsap Alliance of Property Owners, as the Court of Appeals used the same reasoning in saying that Kitsap’s CAO should not apply to shorelines.

Last year, the Legislature moved to clarify the matter by saying cities and counties may use their CAOs until they complete updates to their Shoreline Master Programs, an effort in which many are engaged now. The law was made retroactive to validate numerous CAOs that were in limbo.

Kitsap Alliance of Property Owners argued that it was unconstitutional for the Legislature to pass a law retroactively to get around a court ruling. However, in the latest case, the Court of Appeals sided with the county, saying the Supreme Court had never ruled authoritatively on the matter because of the split nature of the original decision. That made it legal for the Legislature to clarify the intent of the law.

With the appeals court upholding the Critical Areas Ordinance, the appeals court judges then moved into the meat of the Kitsap County case, which involved the use of “best available science” and several constitutional claims. The court found in favor of the county on all major arguments. One can find the discussion in the second part of the Court of Appeals ruling (PDF 148 kb).

KAPO officials are reviewing the case with lawyers for the Pacific Legal Foundation before deciding whether to appeal the matter to the State Supreme Court.

Shoreline conflict and confusion have not yet abated

When it comes to environmental protections for shorelines, local critical areas ordinances continue to be a source of controversy.

The latest development involves a letter from state Rep. Jan Angel asking the state departments of Ecology and Commerce to quit giving legal guidance to local agencies. See my story in today’s Kitsap Sun.

It seems clear from court decisions and legislative actions that the Shoreline Management Act will provide long-term regulations for properties within 200 feet of the shoreline. This law — unlike the Growth Management Act that spawned critical areas ordinances — requires local shoreline plans to be approved by the Washington Department of Ecology.

But the immediate conflict involves what regulations should apply until local shoreline master programs are updated, a process under way for most Puget Sound cities and counties.

The practical aspects are that critical areas ordinances, updated within the past few years, generally include more restrictive regulations, such as larger buffers, in comparison to shoreline plans, most of which were drafted in the 1970s with updates that vary by jurisdiction.

Legally, the issues become complicated. Angel’s position appears to be that court rulings direct local governments to fall back to rules listed in the shoreline master programs until new shoreline plans are approved. Read her letter to Interim Ecology Director Polly Zehm (PDF 172 kb).

Ecology’s position seems to be that local governments should not throw out rules developed in their critical areas ordinances until the shoreline plans are updated.

I should point out that Brian Hodges, an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation, maintains that Kitsap County would be putting itself at legal risk if county officials continue to process shoreline applications under the Kitsap County Critical Areas Ordinance. Hodges was the prevailing attorney in a lawsuit brought by Kitsap Alliance of Property Owners. County officials say they will appeal the ruling to the Washington State Supreme Court.

As for Ecology’s updated “guidance,” the reasoning goes as follows. See Ecology’s Web site for the complete analysis.
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