Habitat proposals raising a furor

The Tacoma News Tribune


Pierce County leaders are reviewing a sweeping package of new regulations that touches everything from wetlands to roads, from trees to stormwater, and from fish and wildlife to volcanic hazards.

The battery of ordinances - known collectively as the "habitat protection and restoration" package - would affect land development in unincorporated Pierce County, where 332,980 people live.

At its core, the 600-page package spearheaded by County Executive John Ladenburg aims to enable new residential and commercial development to tread lightly on the earth. But its potential impacts are already making waves.

Environmentalists say it doesn't go far enough in some areas, especially to preserve wetlands. Builders say they won't be able to answer the call to increase housing density under regulations that seek to preserve even more natural vegetation and open space.

Some property owners bristle at a proposal to raise the standards for installing bulkheads to shore up waterfront properties. Under the habitat package, property owners would have to hire a professional engineer to prove they need a bulkhead, among other things.

And the politics don't stop at bulkheads. In May, a Pierce County planning commissioner resigned over concerns about the legislative package. Some members of the County Council, Democrat and Republican alike, are skeptical over how much of the package is necessary. They also question the cost of more permits, technical reports and extra county staff. Just the land-use and public works elements alone are estimated to cost the county $1.2 million.

"There are many things that are important as far as preserving the environment is concerned that are already covered through the (county's) community plans," said Councilman Calvin Goings (D-Puyallup), who is chairman of the planning and environment committee, which is putting the package through a gauntlet of public meetings this summer. "The community plans cover about 70 percent of the county right now."

Added Councilman Terry Lee (R-Gig Harbor): "We're looking for ways to (streamline) the permitting process, and this is going in the other direction at first blush."

But citizens who remember Pierce County's one-size-fits-all 1962 land-use plan - and its dubious role as the poster child for passing statewide growth management rules - see it differently.

There's "no credence to the idea that we don't need any more regulations, because the ones we have have not been doing the job," said Parkland resident Bill Giddings, who worked on the Parkland-Spanaway-Midland Community Plan.

The legislative package could go to the full County Council as early as next month. It got this far because of looming deadlines for a spate of federal and state mandates. They range from threatened species listings under the federal Endangered Species Act to recent changes to rules covering wetlands under the state's 1990 Growth Management Act.

Additionally, the county is proposing to update natural disaster plans to meet new federal standards and qualify for federal funding, increase flood protection standards to reduce insurance premiums, and overhauling stormwater management rules in response to federal Clean Water Act mandates.

Beginning in March 2002, a draft of the habitat package was the subject of a series of meetings at the county Planning Commission. But the commission delayed its recommendation and asked county planners to respond to public comments through a committee forum.

Eventually, the Planning Commission recommended approval of the legislative package - with amendments - and shipped it to the County Council. But J.L. Day, who cast the only dissenting vote on the commission, resigned under protest.

Among other things, the county didn't do enough to alert the public to the proposed changes, Day wrote in a May 18 letter to County Councilwoman Barbara Gelman (D-Tacoma). He also wrote that when County Executive John Ladenburg urged the commission in person to pass the package "quickly," he "placed undue pressure" on some commission members.

"It's very heavy-handed," Day, who served on the commission for five years, said in a phone interview. "We're supposed to be independent and as free as possible from any outside influence."

Ladenburg, who was on vacation part of last week, could not be reached for comment.

Debby Hyde, a Ladenburg aide who is coordinating the habitat package, said she asked Ladenburg to attend the Planning Commission meeting. Hyde also said Ladenburg is not "wedded" to the package as written.

"He, too, wants it to go through the process. There's no doubt he wants to protect the environment," she said.

Hyde said it was unfortunate that Day "didn't like the process," but that the Planning Commission "let us work on the document literally a year before we came back with changes. By that time, most of the issues had been resolved."

Now, at the County Council level, the habitat package has begun what will amount to another lengthy public review.

So far, the County Council's planning and environment committee has listened to county staff present the package in pieces. The committee has also collected public comments during three recent meetings. Three more meetings are scheduled during the next two weeks.

The list of ordinances that has been presented and discussed, but not decided, includes proposals to strengthen tree conservation and add a relatively new land-use tool to county books: "low-impact development."

Under the tree preservation ordinance, the county would require developers to preserve or replace trees in new residential and commercial construction. The idea is for a new neighborhood to see a net gain in trees, despite its otherwise urban sculpture. From 1972 to 1996, unincorporated and fast-growing South Hill lost more than 50 percent of its tree canopy coverage to sprawl, from 6,295 acres to 3,053 acres.

The county wants to add a "low-impact development" ordinance to encourage environmentally sensitive building practices. A low-impact development manages stormwater runoff through native vegetation, rain gardens and hard surfaces that still allow water to seep into the ground. That way, underground aquifers, which provide roughly 40 percent of Washington's supply of drinking water, have more to refill. That's the opposite of the standard curb-and-gutter subdivision with stormwater detention ponds. The county is promoting a pilot project - the 8-acre residential development Meadow on the Hylebos, between Fife and Milton. Construction is expected to begin next spring.

The Master Builders Association of Pierce County is urging the county to postpone adding low-impact development to the books until it reviews the performance of the pilot project.

"It is irresponsible to mandate (through other ordinances or regulations in this case) the use of these new development techniques before knowing whether they will succeed in our geographic area," Tiffany Speir, the association's spokeswoman, wrote in a letter to the planning and environment committee.

Meanwhile, the Tahoma Audubon Society and other environmentalists have taken aim at the county's wetlands and wildlife proposals. At issue are wetland "buffers," which are strips of vegetation and land surrounding wetlands and protecting them from nearby development. Wetlands can store water, remove pollutants and provide wildlife habitat.

The county is proposing buffer widths of 25 to 150 feet, depending, in part, on the rarity, sensitivity and function of the wetland. Environmentalists want the county to double those widths as recommended by the state Department of Ecology.

Bryan Flint, conservation coordinator for Tahoma Audubon Society, said the wetlands proposal maintains the "status quo."

What is certain is that the County Council's planning and environment committee is going to take its time with the habitat package before letting it reach the full council.

"We're going to give this our full attention as long as it takes to fairly represent our constituents," said Councilman Lee.

Aaron Corvin: 253-552-7058

How to get involved

The Pierce County Council's planning and environment committee is scheduled to hold the following public meetings on the package:

•Fish and wildlife regulations, 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Wednesday, Room 1045 of the County-City Building, 930 Tacoma Ave. S., Tacoma.

•Overview of entire habitat package, 6 p.m. Thursday, Bethel High School, 22215 38th Ave. E., Spanaway.

nVolcanic and seismic hazard regulations, and landslide and flood hazards, among other proposed regulations, 9 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. Aug. 6, Room 1045 of the County-City Building.

To reach offices of the County Council, call 253-798-7777.

On the net

Find Pierce County's proposed "habitat protection and restoration" package online at www.co.pierce.wa.us/pc/services/home/property/pals/landuse/esa.htm


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