Buffer debate returns - A proposed critical areas ordinance renews debate over the need for buffers to protect fish and wildlife

By Christopher Dunagan,
Bremerton Sun Staff

July 13, 2004


Kitsap County, WA - Stream buffers are back for debate in Kitsap County.

It has been five years since the county imposed 200-foot vegetative buffers to protect "threatened" salmon. Now, county planners say the fish should be able to live with no more than 150 feet of buffers along most streams.

This re-thinking of buffers comes as nine counties in Western Washington review their critical areas ordinances to make sure they comply with today's "best available science," as required by the Growth Management Act.

Stream buffers have been among the hottest issues in the land-use and salmon wars. Property rights advocates say they take property away; environmentalists say they are the only predictable way to protect streams.

"It's a balancing act," said Rick Kimball, the county's environmental coordinator. "The law doesn't require that the only thing under consideration is what is best for the resource. It allows for consideration of growth, economic development and property rights."

Still, scienc e suggests that adequate stream buffers are an important way to ensure the health of streams, he said.

Kitsap County planners recently released a "first draft" of its revised Critical Areas Ordinance. It spells out rules for streams, wetlands, water resources, geologic hazards and wildlife habitat. The deadline for approval by the county commissioners is Dec. 1, but Kimball hopes the ordinance will be approved in October.

The 200-foot salmon buffers imposed in 1999 were never written into the critical areas ordinance. They came about when Puget Sound chinook and Hood Canal summer chum were listed as "threatened." The buffers were the result of a "director's interpretation" of language designed to protect listed species.

The county has allowed substantial changes in buffer width when a biologist develops a habitat management plan to show that the stream would not be harmed by a development project.

"The goal," Kimball said, "is to achieve no net loss of (natural) functions or values."

The 200-foot buffer requirement has generated objections among property rights advocates concerned about unnecessary regulations. Now the matter moves to a battleground where science is supposed to be the determining factor.

Vivian Henderson of Kitsap Alliance of Property Owners and Art Castle of the Home Builders Association of Kitsap County say their organizations will respond to the county's draft ordinance, but they're not yet prepared to discuss it in detail.

Mary Bertrand of Chums of Barker Creek said she has not fully reviewed the ordinance either, but she hopes it can be strengthened through the public-review process. The test will be science, she said, and a technical review team, including property rights representatives, has been advising the county.

"In the meetings I attended, they were extremely well prepared in trying to update the critical areas ordinance," Bertrand said. "The county has had some follow-up meetings to explain the changes to citizens. They are trying to educate us so we can make comments."

The 200-foot buffers would still be required near the mouths of Big Beef Creek, Curley Creek, Chico Creek, Burley Creek and Blackjack Creek as well as larger sections of the Union and Tahuya rivers. Other fish-bearing streams would be subject to 150-foot buffers, with smaller streams having 50-foot buffers. For streams that don't flow in summer, that would be an increase from 25 feet.

A property owner would still be allowed to submit a habitat management plan to reduce the buffer requirement. For a single-family home, the reduction could be as much as 50 percent as opposed to 25 percent in the existing ordinance.

A major change for some property owners is to measure the stream from the edge of the "channel migration zone" instead of the high-water mark. The channel migration zone the area that a stream meanders naturally over decades can be much wider than the stream itself when the terrain is flat, but that does not apply to most areas, Kimball said.

King County, by comparison, has proposed a critical areas ordinance with much stronger protections than the county had before. King County's draft increases buffers from 100 feet to 115 feet in urban areas and to 165 feet outside urban areas. Like Kitsap, reductions are allowed with careful planning.

In rural areas, King County has gone a step further than Kitsap by requiring that 65 percent of a developed site be maintained in forest cover, with certain exceptions. Kitsap County's draft ordinance proposes 60 percent forest cover but only on parcels along streams that contain threatened or endangered salmon.

Kimball said forest cover is considered important to protecting streams when development in a watershed increases to 10 percent of the total acreage and beyond. For now, however, planners have decided to leave the forest cover issue alone.

Most of the changes in the draft ordinance were proposed to clean up wording rather than to change the meaning, Kimball said.

Among other issues:

Saltwater shorelines would be required to have 35-foot buffers in most areas. That's similar to what is required currently under the "director's interpretation" for shorelines, which had no buffers under previous rules.

Buffers for major wetlands were not changed in the new proposal, but buffers for smaller wetlands were increased (Type III from 50 to 75 feet and Type IV from 25 to 30 feet).

On steep slopes, a new requirement would prohibit topping more than 35 percent of the trees.

Reach Christopher Dunagan at (360) 792-9207 or at cdunagan@thesunlink.com.

@Briefs Headline:TO SEE THE PROPOSAL

For information and a copy of Kitsap's proposed Critical Areas Ordinance, go to www.kitsapgov.com/dcd/cao.

Comments are requested by Aug. 22, before a final draft and upcoming public hearings.

WHAT'S PROTECTED

Fish and wildlife habitat

Wetlands

Geologically hazardous areas

Frequently flooded areas

Aquifer recharge areas

the PRIORITIES

Avoid impacts to critical areas on your property

Limit impacts from development when impacts can't be avoided

Mitigate for impacts that do occur

 

 

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