Environmental enforcement: a matter of dollars and sense

When it comes to protecting the environment, I think we’ll be hearing a lot more about enforcement in the coming weeks.

I’ve attended several meetings of the Puget Sound Partnership where people have said that we don’t need new rules; we need existing rules to be enforced.

You don’t have to look very hard to see the problem. At the county level, planners and hearing examiners impose rules that sound like they would protect the environment — including up to 100-foot stream and shoreline buffers in some cases. But once a person completes a project arduously after having to search for online installment loans to fund the project, there is no guarantee that he won’t fill in the wetland or cut down the trees in a buffer area.

Unless someone complains, there is no way to know whether the buffers survive over time. Without enforcement against those who violate the rules, the system becomes abusive against those property owners who act in good faith. That seems pretty obvious, right?

Kitsap County Commissioner Steve Bauer, a member of the Ecosystem Coordination Board for the Partnership, seems to understand the frustration of people who see violations but can’t get quick action. In many cases, the penalties are so low that some people violate the rules under the assumption that fines are just the cost for doing what they want.

In a Monday briefing I covered for today’s Kitsap Sun, Bauer expressed support for a more efficient system, including a process that would bring violations to a hearing examiner instead of district court.

I expect that this issue will be part of this year’s county budget discussions. While the budget is growing ever tighter, I’m sure the commissioners understand that you can’t really address this code enforcement problem without additional staff.

The same thing goes for state agencies — whether we’re talking about the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which our protects our wild creatures; the Department of Natural Resources, which addresses logging practices; or the Department of Ecology, which protects our land and waters from pollution. By the way Lisa Stiffler did a nice job examining Ecology’s enforcement problems in yesterday’s Seattle PI.

Back to the local level, health departments must deal with sewage, stormwater, garbage and hazardous waste problems.

Bill Ruckleshaus of the Puget Sound Partnership often talks about how his organization will not create new regulations. The Partnership simply intends to shine a light on the best actions taking place among governments, businesses and volunteer groups.

To the Partnership’s credit, enforcement has already been part of the general discussion. I found the following in the discussion paper about habitat and land use, which covers rules for protecting critical areas:

Most jurisdictions report a lack of funding to accomplish those tasks and further lack the staff to monitor whether the protections remain after a period of years (beyond the period where they hold bonds or other security for a project). Finally, many jurisdictions also report a lack of adequate funding for general code enforcement efforts (where activities take place outside of the permitting process).

The next step is to address the money issues, both inside and outside of state and local agencies. Until someone faces the financial hurdles, it’s just talk.

6 thoughts on “Environmental enforcement: a matter of dollars and sense

  1. Why not ask for the help of retired folks…who might well volunteer if their gas bill is covered…

    All they would be doing is report on what they find…but what a time and cost savings for the county and taxpayers.
    Sharon O’Hara

  2. “Most jurisdictions report a lack of funding to accomplish those tasks…”

    Is it a lack of funding? Or that the existing funding is being spent elsewhere?

    Take Kitsap County, for example… Our entire Department of Natural Resources (within DCD) came into existence during our initial salmon recovery effort. I’m not sure what that program’s current budget is, but the last time I looked it was over $600,000/year.

    That should buy a lot of enforcement. If it is not being spent that way, whose fault is it: the taxpayers or the county’s? If the Puget Sound Partnership’s first instinct is to find a way to get “more funding”, I suggest they look within existing government budgets. If they look to the taxpayer, their cleanup efforts will – more than likely – meet with fierce opposition.

  3. Our group, Citizens Protecting Critical Areas, (CPCA), based in Jefferson County, have filed several complaints over violations of the Critical Areas Ordinance. Many times several members of the County staff have visited the site and conceded that they were indeed violations. There has been effectively no enforcement. Perhaps fewer site visits and more enforcement would be a better use of county funds.

  4. Susan…what does your group think of the notion that a builder can get a permit to build IF he relocates the 1/4 acre wetland he plans to fill, elsewhere?

    How is it possible to replicate a real wetland and all its intricacies?
    Why isn’t the builder told to work with and around the sensitive areas?

    Why hasn’t there been enforcement on the violations? Who is responsible for ignoring them?

  5. Sharon,
    CPCA does not think anyone should be able to relocate wetlands. We think the builder should be relocated.

    The County has just refused to enforce the Critical Area Ordinance regulations. The County is responsible.

  6. Then the County should be liable for damages…. for destroying/ changing forever our children’s future environment.
    Thank you, Susan…

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