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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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