County revamps habitat rules - Over 600 pages of proposed ordinances up for review

AARON CORVIN; The News Tribune


Pierce County, WA - Pierce County is launching an overhaul of certain land-use and environmental policies, mainly to protect fish and wildlife in unincorporated areas ranging from the remote - Fox Island - to the rapidly growing - South Hill.

At more than 600 pages, the package of proposed ordinances known as the "directions for protecting and restoring habitat" is costly and broad in its impact.

County officials estimate it will cost an additional $1.2 million a year in staff and time to carry out the so-called directions package, which touches everything from wetlands to roads, from trees to stormwater, and from wildlife to volcanic hazards.

Essentially, the package spearheaded by County Executive John Ladenburg aims to ensure that new houses, stores and offices tread lightly on unincorporated Pierce County, where 339,000 people live.

County residents will have plenty of chances to comment as the County Council begins a monthlong slate of public hearings Monday. A decision is expected this fall.

Councilman Calvin Goings (D-Puyallup), chairman of the council's Community Development Committee, said developers and environmentalists are lining up their experts and gathering scientific evidence to bolster their competing arguments.

"The debate will be, 'Whose scientists do you believe?'" Goings said. "This is all supposed to be based on the best available science."

Federal and state laws are prodding the County Council to act on the directions package. Under the federal Endangered Species Act, the county must protect bull trout and Chinook salmon. Under the state's Growth Management Act, Pierce County is required to use "best available science" to rewrite regulations protecting critical areas, which include wetlands, streams, rivers, fish, wildlife and groundwater. The county must complete that task by Dec. 1.

This isn't the first time the county has taken up the directions package.

In 2002, the county Planning Commission held numerous meetings to discuss a draft of the package. The commission asked for more time to review the complex set of regulations and eventually recommended it to the County Council. Last year, a council committee bounced it back to the commission, but not before slicing the directions package into three parts to make it easier for officials, and the public, to absorb.

Now, with yet another Planning Commission endorsement, the directions package is back on the County Council's agenda.

Wetlands most heated issue

The future of wetlands is perhaps the most controversial piece of the county's directions package. The issue boils down to whether the county should increase the size of "buffers," those strips of vegetation, trees, brush or land surrounding wetlands and protecting them from nearby development. Wetlands are important because they store water, remove pollutants and provide fish and wildlife habitat.

The county is proposing to increase buffer widths, depending on the intensity of the proposed development and the rarity, sensitivity and function of the wetland. The current buffer range is 25 to 150 feet. The proposal would double the maximum buffer to 300 feet.

Building a supermarket near a wetland teeming with life, for example, would trigger the need to either plant or leave a 300-foot-wide buffer between the building and the wetland. Conversely, building a park with some picnic benches near a less active wetland would require a 110-foot-wide buffer. The county's proposed wetlands regulations follow guidelines advanced by the state Department of Ecology.

But developers argue the new standards - particularly the 300-foot-wide buffer - would prevent homeowners who already live near wetlands from remodeling or expanding their homes, add to the costs of obtaining building permits and hamper private property rights.

Catherine Rudolph, government affairs director for the Tacoma-Pierce County Association of Realtors, said there's no evidence that expanding buffers will actually protect wetlands. What that would do, she said, is reduce the amount of land available for new houses in the county's planned urban growth areas.

"The existing buffers seem to be doing a good job," she said.

Environmentalists disagree, saying the county has plenty of room for more houses. They cite the county's 2002 "buildable lands report," which indicated the county can absorb 140,303 houses - 40 percent more than the 100,040 houses the county anticipates will be needed to handle growth by 2017.

Marian Berejikian, executive director of the environmental group Friends of Pierce County, said the new wetlands rules encourage developers to protect natural resources by building up, not out.

"We all depend on clean water," she said. "We all need it, developers, environmentalists, everybody. We need to protect those areas."

Shorelines also a sticking point

Other controversial proposals included in the directions package are attempts to encourage environmentally sensitive building practices to boost the quantity and quality of water and to require builders to preserve or replace trees in new neighborhoods and shopping complexes.

Even the future of roughly 144 miles of waterfront property, from Fox Island to the Gig Harbor and Key peninsulas, is at stake. The county is proposing new standards to prevent shorelines from eroding and damaging fish and wildlife.

One proposal is to increase the width of buffers along shorelines from 50 feet to 100 feet. Another proposal encourages property owners to use logs, rocks and other natural materials - instead of concrete or steel bulkheads - to shore up waterfront properties.

Councilman Terry Lee (R-Gig Harbor) said owners of shoreline properties already take good care of their land. And he's concerned that the sheer volume and complexity of the rules contained in the directions package will backfire and only make people refuse to follow them.

He's keeping an open mind, he said, and plans to ask a lot of questions about how the proposed rules will affect lives and landscapes.

"I'm going to listen intently to both the environmental community and the development community," he said.

Aaron Corvin: 253-552-7058

How to get involved

The Pierce County Council's Community Development Committee has scheduled the following hearings to consider the proposed "directions for protecting and restoring habitat" package:

Monday: 1:30 p.m., in Room 1045 of the County-City Building, 930 Tacoma Ave. S., Tacoma. Reviewing proposed new standards for stormwater management, roads and bridges, wetlands and erosion hazard areas

Monday, July 26: 1:30 p.m., in Room 1045 of the County-City Building, 930 Tacoma Ave. S., Tacoma. Reviewing proposed new standards for building near aquifers and hazards, including landslide, mine, volcanic and flood areas

Monday, Aug. 2: 1:30 p.m., in Room 1045 of the County-City Building, 930 Tacoma Ave. S., Tacoma. Reviewing proposed new standards for forest practices and tree conservation, development regulations, zoning and signs

Monday, Aug. 2: 6 p.m., at the Peninsula High School Auditorium, 14105 Purdy Drive N.W., Gig Harbor. Reviewing proposed new standards for shoreline development

Monday, Aug. 9: 1:30 p.m., in Room 1045 of the County-City Building, 930 Tacoma Ave. S., Tacoma. Considering all topics under proposed "directions for protecting and restoring habitat"

For information

Hugh Taylor, research analyst, 253-798-3665, or Jenifer Schultz, clerk for the Community Development Committee, 253-798-6696 or 1-800-992-2456

The members of the council's Community Development Committee are: Calvin Goings (D-Puyallup), chairman, 253-798-6694, Terry Lee (R-Gig Harbor), vice chairman, 253-798-6654, Harold Moss (D-Tacoma), 253-798-7590, Dick Muri (R-Steilacoom), 253-798-3308 and Kevin Wimsett (D-Spanaway), 253-798-6626.

Public comment

The council is accepting public comment on the package. Send comments:

By e-mail to

By regular mail to County Council, Room 1046, 930 Tacoma Ave. S., Tacoma, WA 98402.

Call the message line at 253-798-7800. The message line will be updated to provide the council's schedule for the directions package. Changes might occur. Use the message line to get the latest information about meeting schedules.



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