Shoreline owners are on the front lines of ecosystem protection

Waterfront property owners are a special class of people, and I mean that in a good way.

When it comes to sensitive shoreline habitat, they are the front lines of protection. When storms cause property damage, they see more than their share — and they pay handsomely for the privilege in both the cost of property and taxes.

Driftwood helps rebuild natural habitat after a bulkhead is removed, as in this example from Maury Island. Photo: Christopher Dunagan
Driftwood piles up and helps rebuild natural habitat after a bulkhead is removed, as in this example from Maury Island.
Photo: Christopher Dunagan

As I interviewed people and conducted research for a series of stories on shoreline armoring, I came into contact with dozens of shoreline property owners who were learning about the latest science on the nearshore environment. They wanted to know how to better manage their property. Some were contemplating removing bulkheads where the wave energy allowed, knowing that many bulkheads built years ago are not really needed.

The latest stories in our series, published in the Encyclopedia of Puget Sound, are:

Although I believe that most shoreline property owners are environmentally responsible, I do wonder about people who have damaged shoreline habitats to improve their view or water access without obtaining the required permits. It seems at every hearing regarding shoreline regulations, somebody will speak up and say, “It’s my property, and I can do what I want!”

One of the interviews that did not make it into the series was a discussion I had with Jay Manning, a South Kitsap native who went on to serve as an assistant attorney general, director of the Washington Department of Ecology and the governor’s chief of staff when Chris Gregoire was in office. Jay now serves as a member of the Puget Sound Leadership Council, the governing body for the Puget Sound Partnership.

Jay and I got to talking about how waterfront property owners occupy a special place — literally and legally — when it comes to protecting the public’s interest in shoreline ecosystems. A balance of public and private rights is embodied in the state’s Shoreline Management Act, which demands the highest level of protection for water bodies and adjacent lands.

The public’s ability to enjoy natural resources along the waterfront “shall be preserved to the greatest extent feasible,” the act states. “To this end, uses shall be preferred which are consistent with control of pollution and prevention of damage to the natural environment, or are unique to or dependent upon use of the state’s shoreline.”

As an assistant attorney general representing Ecology, Jay learned that shoreline ownership embodies a special public-private relationship.

“It’s much more significant, I think, than what you find with upland properties,” he said. “The full array of (private property) rights that you find in upland areas does not apply to shoreline areas.”

State law builds upon the Public Trust Doctrine, an ancient and enduring principle that retains certain rights to the public for all time, regardless of ownership.

Jay, a shoreline property owner himself, says the Puget Sound Partnership has identified the protection and restoration of shorelines as a key element in the recovery of Puget Sound.

A few years ago, many cities and counties routinely approved bulkheads without giving it a second thought. But that has been changing as local jurisdictions adopt new shoreline master programs. Now, one cannot get approval to build a bulkhead unless a house is imminently threatened by waves or erosion.

So far, about half of the 12 counties in the Puget Sound region are operating under the revised requirements, along with nearly 90 percent of the 101 cities.

Unfortunately, Jay noted, rules related to shorelines have never been as rigorously enforced as those related to water quality, for which the threats to human health are more obvious. Counties and cities vary greatly in the amount of effort they put into land-use enforcement.

For some people, it just seems easier to move ahead and get the work done, thus avoiding delays and costs of permitting, consulting work and mitigation. Some people don’t believe that shoreline regulations make much sense.

But, as many local officials told me, they would like the chance to talk with property owners about the value of shorelines, explain the regulations and discuss various alternatives that might even save money. Most regulations, after all, have a basis in science, and we can all learn from what the latest studies are telling us.

3 thoughts on “Shoreline owners are on the front lines of ecosystem protection

  1. The importance of shorelines to our Puget Sound ecosystem, and the impacts of our actions on those shorelines are complex topics. One good place to find out more is at:

    This web site contains a text-based guidebook for shoreline living, links to informative web sites, and my favorite: links to some videos about shorelines that run the gamut from having fun at low tide, being a good shoreline steward, and tips for safe, fun, and legal personal shellfish harvest. These are all free resources, produced in association with local marine scientists by WSU Extension. (I did make a couple of the videos 🙂

  2. Regarding the comments on the effect of bulkheads or armoring of the seashore: I think you all paint this picture with too broad a brush. Local conditions matter. We live on Liberty Bay with a West facing beach. The wind is predominately from the WNW. We built our bulkhead in 1976 after going through 13 federal, state, and local agencies for approval. It took more than one year to obtain the approval. I would note that we had to hire our own environmental expert to survey the beach. The beach today is in the same shape as it was when the bulkhead was installed even though we were told it would be totally destroyed by the bulkhead. It originally had 12 feet of sand, gravel and then cobble: it still does. Why, you might ask? Because of wave action which scours the beach and continually produces gravel and the like. As you may recall the sub soil here is a deposit from the melting glaciers that once blanketed this area eons ago. The material on the bottom of Liberty Bay is the same as that from the banks adjacent to the bay. Hence the wave action produce the rock, sand, and gravel as before the bulkhead was installed. The banks are not the only source of beach replenishment. Before this and other bulkheads were installed Virginia Point was eroding at a rate of more than 6” to a couple feet per year. Our home would be in the water by now were it not for our bulkhead.

    1. Doug,

      Every site is unique, and I agree that generalities can be misleading. If the goal is to prevent erosion, bulkheads may be the only answer in certain locations. Property owners should never be condemned for having a bulkhead. But, in talking to experts through the years, I’ve learned that there are many locations in Puget Sound — including portions of Liberty Bay — where bulkheads disrupt natural processes. Much has been learned over the past 40 years about alternative approaches that cause less environmental damage, so other options can be considered.

      It sounds like you went through extensive studies before your bulkhead was installed, but I know of many bulkheads that went in with practically no review. Craig Powell of Sealevel Bulkhead Builders, who now uses soft shore protection techniques for suitable sites, acknowledged as much in a story I wrote last year for the Kitsap Business Journal.

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