Government agencies create more oversight, control over private property, water - Citizens left out of the process


Editorial by Jim Hagen
Jefferson County, Washington

June 1, 2010

It's hardly news that for years citizens have been shut out of the land-use policy decisions that directly affect their lives and property. But as environmental regulations become more complex and restrictive, and public resistance grows, there is movement to even further isolate the hierarchy of the people from the power of the government bureaucracy. Recent signals from the Department of Ecology (DOE) and the Puget Sound Partnership (PSP) indicate a shift in emphasis to a more centralized oversight of land management, sacrificing local autonomy and accountable representation. In a portent of things to come, on May 25th the San Juan County Council discussed a proposed resolution to turn over all planning decisions to the PSP.

Clearly, DOE's regulatory appetite is bigger than its stomach. Local jurisdictions, especially in the smaller rural areas, possess neither the resources or the budgets to implement ambitious new critical area and shoreline rules. Planning departments are collapsing under the weight of trying to draft, adopt, administer and enforce what are potentially five-fold increases in the status quo. DOE addressed these problems in a white paper written by consultants Kramer, MacIlroy, and Clancy, published on March 4th of this year. Their conclusions were both predictable and stupefying. In a stunning acknowledgement DOE admitted that despite being several years into the new shoreline update process, the path for meeting major SMP objectives was "still emerging!" Major obstacles to environmental protection were the already mentioned lack of funding and support, statutory restrictions limiting their power, and the increasing involvement of property rights groups which spread fear through false information!

Never failing to turn a crisis into an opportunity the paper's solutions lie not in streamlining the regulatory process but expanding it. Recommendations centered upon securing funding commitments - which could only come with strings attached - and expanding the role of the Puget Sound Partnership and other unnamed "partners" to help in providing technical assistance and to "educate" local landowners. What wasn't mentioned as a problem is the unsustainable DOE regulatory mentality of we'll-cross-that-bridge-after-we're-past-it.

Jefferson County is a case study in regulatory overkill and the resulting vicious cycle. With no demonstrated environmental problem, the County has spent eight expensive and contentious years updating their critical area and shoreline ordinances. The ink was no sooner dry on the 200 page Shoreline Master Program (SMP) when it was announced the Department of Community Development (DCD), near bankrupt and with a third of it staff laid off due to the building decline, was instituting a Watershed Stewardship Resource Center to, in the words of the DCD director, help applicants through the permit "maze" created by these newly adopted ordinances. (You can't make this stuff up). Another purpose of this $800,000 advisory service was to promote the benefits of "optional" sustainable development practices through an "inspirational" $140,000 demonstration garden ($40K for plants) and a public relations relations program geared toward "changing unwanted behavior." Never mind that the private sector is already offering green building alternatives way ahead of the curve at a fraction of the costs. But the main question is what is the incentive for optional stewardship when a stranglehold of prescriptive rules are already in place? This voluntary option is the equivalent of the Godfather's offer you can't refuse.

But as wasteful an extravagance as this appears on the surface, what is more insidious are the real motives driving this concept. Originally thought to be just a pet project by local enviro-activist/opportunists, the fingerprints of the Puget Sound Partnership are all over this project, grant-funded by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Watershed Center is ultimately viewed as a trial "coaching model" for implementation of the PSP Action Agenda all over Western Washington. The work plan submitted as part of the grant application by the County lists seven state and local agency and non-profit organizations adding up to 32 partners. Jefferson County seems but a minor player in a project that DCD heralds as a proactive structural department rebuild aimed toward environmental protection. Jefferson property owners wishing to weigh in on the WSRC will have to stand at the end of a long line to get in their allotted three minutes of comment.

Part of the overall EPA grant package for coordinated Olympic Peninsula planning is another proposal funding Clallam County's SMP update. The summary of the grant mentions among its project components additional "colloborators" including NOAA, PSP, Strait of San Juan de Fuca Recovery Network, Puget Sound Nearshore Ecosystem Restoration Project, WDFW, WDR, Whatcom County, Cities of Port Townsend, Sequim, and Port Angeles, and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Curiously, the contact for the Clallam grant is the Jefferson DCD Director. As Abbott and Costello asked, who's on first? There is a huge difference between accountable local government and faceless centralized governance by cronyism and self-appointed committee.

This train has left the station. The existence of a recession and the 100 Year Budget Crisis is a mere speed bump. The DOE regulatory model is self-propagating. At a Jefferson County Commissioner meeting recently, a staunch environmental supporter summed up the objectives of the amorphous Public Interest thusly; "I am a shoreline owner. We are all shoreline owners. Everybody in Washington state owns the shoreline." Citizens who beg to differ are increasingly left on the outside looking in by a system rigged to shut them out. The only exception is November.

Jim Hagen