Cost of new ‘critical areas’ program hits tight budget

By Paula Horton - Daily World Writer

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Aberdeen, WA - The City of Aberdeen is beginning the complicated and expensive process of identifying its “critical areas” — wetlands, steep slopes, aquifers and fish and wildlife habitats.

Once completed, following the rules could be a “nightmare,” the City Council was told Wednesday night. One councilman branded the plan a “feel-good measure.”

For starters, complying with the new state law is going to have a steep impact on the city’s already tight budget.

Further, the plan will create another step some citizens will have to take when seeking building permits, according to Lisa Scott, the city’s community development director.

A “ballpark figure” on the cost to complete the critical areas assessment is $150,000 to $250,000, she said.

“This is one of those severely underfunded mandates,” Scott told the City Council. “And once this is done and we have this implemented, this is going to be a nightmare to enforce. Every single building permit will have to be reviewed for critical areas.”

The council passed a report last night authorizing the city to contract with a consultant in Olympia, HDR Engineering Inc., to complete a preliminary inventory, map the critical areas and help create a draft ordinance.

The first phase of the work will cost $25,240, of which $13,200 is covered by a grant from the state Department of Ecology. The second phase — the actual identification of critical areas and mapping — is what’s going to cost the most.

“With our budget problems we’re already having, this is not going to help,” Councilman Paul Fritts said. “Legislators talk a lot about unfunded mandates, but they don’t do anything about it. It’s a feel-good measure. It looks good in the paper and buys them some votes, but it doesn’t help cities.

“It’s important for citizens to know these are not restrictions we want to put on them, it’s something being forced on us from the state.”

The city doesn’t have a critical areas ordinance. The new plan is anticipated to be completed by the end of the year. State law now requires all cities and counties to identify and protect critical areas. Grays Harbor County is one of the last counties yet to complete the requirement, Scott said.

If the city didn’t comply, it wouldn’t be eligible to receive any money from the state.

“I truly believe buffers and protections are important,” Scott said. “However, some of this goes to the extreme.”

For example, if it’s determined the city is required to have a 300-foot buffer around Pioneer Park because of the wetlands surrounding the park, it would mean all the homes within 300 feet of the park are in a critical area, the community development director said. If a homeowner in that area wants to put on a new roof or build a new shed, they’ll have to go through a critical areas review before they can get a building permit.

“It’s going to be an educational process for not only us, but also our citizens,” Scott said.

City staff will try to do as much in-house work as they can to save money, but they don’t have the expertise to be able to do it all, Scott said. Using the consultant will help the city identify ways to work within the laws but still be flexible to help meet residents’ needs.

“We’ve always prided ourselves on customer service and helping people who come to the counter,” Scott said. “This will give us some basis within the ordinance and laws set … to be able to create smaller buffers in the some areas and more in others.”



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