Slew of property rules rolls out

AARON CORVIN; The News Tribune
Last updated: March 1st, 2005 08:28 PM (PST)

Pierce County, WA - Today, Pierce County adds a smorgasbord of new land-use regulations covering wetlands, streams, trees, stormwater runoff and even a volcano.

Collectively known as “directions for protecting and restoring habitat,” the regulations are comprehensive and pricey: The county is spending $1 million to hire 14 biologists, engineers and planners to carry them out.

To critics, the rules take another bite out of property rights. To backers, they save salmon and make neighborhoods more livable. The truth is closer to somewhere in the middle: The rules crack down on sprawl but allow a few important exemptions.

“At some point you don’t just make regulations more restrictive,” says County Councilman Terry Lee (R-Gig Harbor), who helped broker final changes to the regulations. “You balance that with personal property rights.”

The “directions” apply to new residential and commercial developments in unincorporated Pierce County, home to 339,000 people, plus property owners like Roy Lampson.

Lampson, 61, calls Tacoma home, but he owns roughly 35 acres of unincorporated forestland on the Key Peninsula that are crisscrossed by two salmon-bearing streams. He says the new regulations embody the county’s mistrust of his ability to protect his land.

“It’s an unnecessary restriction,” he says.

The rules were three years in the making and prodded by federal and state laws.

Under the federal Endangered Species Act, Pierce County must protect bull trout and Chinook salmon. Under Washington’s Growth Management Act, the county must use “best available science” to rewrite regulations protecting critical areas, which include wetlands, streams, rivers, fish, wildlife and groundwater.

Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg proposed a “directions” package. Debby Hyde, a Ladenburg aide, shepherded the legislation through various rewrites. County Council members Lee and Calvin Goings (D-Puyallup) brokered the final package by getting building, contracting, real estate and environmental interest groups to agree to key parts of it.

The council adopted the package Oct. 19.

What it does

It doubles or triples the acreage required to compensate for wetlands destroyed by development. Vegetative buffers to protect wetlands may be as much as three times larger.

It limits the amount of pavement in subdivisions and commercial developments. And it requires developers to retain more trees.

Builders and environmentalists, often adversaries, both question the effectiveness of the new rules.

Tiffany Speir, government affairs director for the Master Builders Association of Pierce County, is wary of the new pavement-limiting rules.

“When you limit the number of sidewalks or driveways or roof-top square footage, and couple that with (leaving) certain amounts of vegetation on site,” she says, “you’re limiting the amount of buildable area on a particular lot, whether it’s commercial or residential.”

Marian Berejikian, executive director of Friends of Pierce County, a local environmental group, calls the package “a step in the right direction.” But her group is disappointed in the County Council’s decision to scuttle proposed vegetative buffers to protect aquatic life along the county’s 176 miles of shoreline.

As a result, she says, her group declined to publicly endorse the entire package.

Nevertheless, the new rules face two appeals to the Central Puget Sound Growth Management Hearings Board, one of three state panels appointed by the governor to resolve land-use disputes.

One of the appeals – filed by Seattle’s People for Puget Sound and Tacoma’s Citizens for a Healthy Bay – challenges the county’s decision to scuttle shoreline buffers. Both groups want the county to impose a 150-foot buffer along the marine shoreline in unincorporated areas.

The other appeal, filed by the Tahoma Audubon Society, challenges the county’s new rules allowing developers to build a conference facility for up to 500 people in the Mount Rainier hazard area between Ashford and Elbe as long as a written escape plan is created.

Pierce County avoids backlash

Councilman Lee says the county will address shorelines separately by updating the county’s shoreline management plan by Dec. 1, 2008 – three years earlier than required by state law.

For now, the regulations strike a balance between preserving natural areas and protecting people’s property rights, he says.

The state Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development, which disputed one of Pierce County’s land-use decisions as recently as last year, praises the county’s new habitat rules.

In a Jan. 19 letter, CTED Director Juli Wilkerson wrote that the rules protect “environmental assets that exist in the urban areas while retaining the ability of urban areas to accommodate the growth anticipated in Pierce County over the next 20 years.”

Pierce County isn’t alone in adopting new and complex habitat-preservation rules. In October, the King County Council imposed similar wetland rules and other regulations, including prohibiting rural landowners from clearing up to 65 percent of their land.

Unlike Pierce County, King County quickly found itself facing a revolt. Landowners are appealing to the state Supreme Court to reverse the regulations. And some are seeking a bill in the Legislature to enable them to secede from King County and establish a new government.

Pierce County has avoided a backlash, in part, because its regulatory package grants waivers. The new rules apply to new subdivisions, stores and offices. But if you want to build one house on a lot vested under old rules, then you don’t have to abide by the new habitat measures.

Hyde, the Ladenburg aide, also notes that several of the county’s neighborhood growth plans already contain restrictions similar to those in the habitat package.

Speir, the lobbyist for the local builders group, says it’s only a matter of time before Pierce County’s rural residents realize what happened.

In King County, “the rural folks are 10 years ahead in terms of being isolated from the urban areas,” she says. “There’s long-term resentment of being dominated by city politicians.”

‘I’m the best regulator’

To implement the new rules, the county’s Planning and Land Services Department is spending $1 million raised through new and increased development processing fees to hire additional staff. But the department won’t immediately act on the habitat measures.

That’s because the department, which processes about 20,000 permits annually, has a backlog of 1,020 land-use cases, according to a report released last year.

Department Director Chuck Kleeberg says the backlog comes first. Land-use proposals that trigger the new habitat measures will probably wait a few weeks for attention.

“We’ll be taking in ‘directions,’” he says, “but we won’t be using the new staff to review those until we get through the old stuff.”

For Lampson, the 61-year-old Key Peninsula landowner, the new regulations drive another wedge between himself and his land.

Lampson, retired from the Bremerton Shipyard, cuts and sells timber to pay property taxes. He replants what he cuts. He figures his family has planted 20,000 trees over the years. He also got a culvert built to allow salmon safe passage through his property.

He visits his property as often as he can to keep it clean. But people don’t care. Some idiot took a 12-gauge shotgun and blasted his 10-year-old Douglas firs in half, he says. Someone else dumped a dryer on his property. One time, Lampson ran off a guy who was excavating dirt from his land.

Now, he says, Pierce County thinks it can protect the streams better than he does by requiring buffers up to 150 feet. That will put a good portion of his property off limits to him. But he bets the people who don’t care will keep on trespassing.

On a cold Tuesday morning, Lampson stands near one of the streams on his property. Douglas firs loom above. Frost gathers on the ground.

“I’m the best regulator of what I have here,” he says.

The new rules

Highlights of Pierce County land-use regulations that take effect today:

 • Doubles or triples the acreage required to compensate for wetlands destroyed by development. Existing “buffers” – the strips of vegetation, trees, brush or land surrounding wetlands and protecting them from nearby development – previously ranged between 25 and 100 feet. Now, they can be expanded to as much as 300 feet, but only for the most sensitive and valuable wildlife habitats based on site-by-site assessments.

 • Limits pavement to no more than 45 percent of the area of a proposed subdivision or commercial development. The new limitation is countywide. Previously, limitations on pavement varied depending on neighborhood land-use plans.

 • Requires developers of subdivisions and commercial properties to retain between 10 and 30 percent of the larger trees, depending on the variety. After buildings go up, developers can be required to replant to meet trees-per-acre standards, which vary with zoning.

 • Allows – but does not require – developers to use “low-impact development” techniques to manage stormwater runoff. A low-impact development manages runoff through native vegetation, rain gardens and hard surfaces that still allow water to seep into the ground. The idea is to help replenish underground aquifers, which provide roughly 40 percent of Washington’s supply of drinking water. It’s the opposite of the way stormwater runoff is largely handled now, where curbs, gutters and underground pipes funnel runoff in high volumes from subdivisions to detention ponds.

 • Restricts housing densities and establishes occupancy loads for buildings such as convention centers within volcanic hazard areas where lahars – rapidly moving mudflows from Mount Rainier – might occur. Creates travel-time zones within volcanic hazard areas. Requires land-use applicants to submit analyses of travel times and an emergency evacuation plan for requests to increase occupancies in buildings such as convention centers, churches and theaters.

On the Net

For information about Pierce County’s “directions” for protecting natural habitat, go to www.piercecounty Select “County Council” and then click on “major legislation under review.”

Aaron Corvin: 253-552-7058

Originally published: March 1st, 2005 12:01 AM (PST)


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