Jefferson County poised to decide wetlands buffers
By Evan Cael and Leah Leach, Peninsula Daily News
April 8, 2007
PORT TOWNSEND, WA - It will be up to the Jefferson County Planning Commission to decide if compliance with wetland buffer zone boundaries should be voluntary or not.
A committee formed to sort out the best science on such zones, after an public outcry against doubling them last summer, is divided on the issue and plans to deliver at least two reports to the planning commissioners next month.
A majority report advises making compliance with wetland buffer zone boundaries voluntary.
A minority report will take a stricter regulatory approach.
Buffer zones around wetland areas are presently delineated in county ordinance to prevent development too close to environmentally sensitive areas.
Existing zones range from 25 feet to 150 feet.
In May, the Jefferson County Department of Community Development drafted a critical areas ordinance with 100 percent increases of such zones - the largest being 300 feet.
That change was part of an agreement with Washington Environmental Council, an environmental state lobbying group that went before the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board.
WEC argued that the county had failed to comply with the state Growth Management Act regarding critical areas, such as wetland, salmon migration channels and flood zones.
When the revised ordinance went before the Planning Commission in June, many members of the public complained that the county had not sought more comment from them.
"This should have been more promoted and advertised than what is was," said Mike Belenski, a Mats Mats Bay resident, at the June public hearing.
"This is not really about wetland issues. It's a county credibility issue."
Some felt it was exactly about wetlands issues - and about their right to develop their land.
As Preston Drew, a former logger and vice president for Citizens Alliance for Property Rights, said at that hearing, "What this is is an assault on your freedoms and property rights."
Others favored the larger zones.
So, the county, with WEC's blessing, formed the Jefferson County Critical Areas Committee - consisting of four planning commissioners and about 15 citizens - to sort it all out.
Since August, the committee has been meeting every Thursday.
It's due to present its findings, and proposed revisions, to the Planning Commission on May 2.
The majority report, which relies heavily on science derived from committee member wetlands scientist Kenn Brooks, would permit voluntary compliance with wetland buffer regulations.
The minority report, calling for stricter regulation, is being drafted by committee member Amy Hyatt, an architect.
A third report is being solitarily drafted by committee member Robert Crittenden.
But that report is endangered by a motion approved at a Planning Commission meeting two weeks ago.
The motion by Planning Commissioner Bill Miller stated that each report must be endorsed by at least one planning commissioner and two resident committee members.
Both the majority report and the minority report written by Hyatt have the required backing.
Crittenden's report doesn't.
Planning Commissioner Edel Sokol attempted to rescind Miller's motion at last week's Planning Commission meeting, but was unsuccessful.
Another issue as the reports move toward their destination has to do with the way they are written.
The committee will not be provided a county staff member to write revision recommendations into legal language, referred to as "code."
Hyatt is writing the minority report in code, but the majority report is not in legal language.
Bud Schindler, chair of the Planning Commission and chair of the critical areas committee, said he had thought the committee would have a code writer on hand.
"I have not been on a committee that didn't write code," Schindler said.
If the recommendations are not in code, the nuances and intent could be lost, he said.
Since the committee began meeting, the Jefferson County Department of Community Development has lost three employees in its long-range planning department.
That has limited its ability to assist the committee in writing its recommendations into code language, said Al Scalf, director of the Department of Community Development.
At the committee's request, the three county commissioners approved spending $10,000 to hire a code writer for the project.
Eric Toews of Port Townsend-based Cascadia Planning will be hired.
His contract is expected to be signed on April 16, two weeks before the committee is expected to deliver reports to the Planning Commission.
But Scalf said Toews won't be used for the committee.
"He won't be able to jump in and start writing code," Scalf said.
That's because he'll have to read about 400 pages of documents to get up to speed on the critical areas ordinance and the work the committee has done thus far done.
Plus, Scalf said that since Miller's motion mentioned "reports" and not code language, the reports do not have to be written in code.
County Administrator John Fischbach said it was decided two months ago that the committee would not be afforded a code writer, but instead that the code writer would be used to draft the ordinance recommendations of the full nine-member planning commissioner.
"There was never a possibility for getting a code writer for the committee," Fischbach said.
"It was basically a budgetary decision.