Snohomish County may ease urban-habitat protections - County council gives planners less control over development decisions

By Emily Heffter
Seattle Times Snohomish County bureau


Snohomish County, WA - The Snohomish County Council may soften protections of wildlife habitats in urban areas one way the council may change environmental restrictions as part of a 10-year review.

The council has hired an outside firm to do the state-required review of the county's environmentally sensitive areas. Usually, the county's planning staff does such work.

Using a consultant will give the council a "bigger range of options," Republican Councilman John Koster said, but the decision worries some Democrats and environmentalists.

Hiring the consultant is one of several moves the council's Republican majority has made in the past year to give planners less control over development decisions in the county. Last summer, the council wrote its own version of a growth-management report about two weeks before it was due to the state, trumping a version planners had been working on for more than three years.

That kicked off a continuing debate among the council, Snohomish County cities and the County Executive's Office over how much say the planning department should have in growth issues.

But though Democrats in county government said they were initially concerned about the consultant, the process seems to be going smoothly, they said.

"So far, I'm a major player in helping them sort of put this together," said Randy Middaugh, the county's senior biologist.

The state Growth Management Act requires Snohomish County to review, by 2005, "critical areas" wetlands, fish and wildlife habitats and geologically hazardous areas prone to landslides, earthquakes or erosion. After the county has identified the areas, it must find ways to protect them by curbing development, requiring buffers around them and changing policies so the areas won't be harmed.

Koster said that the planning department would likely bring forward its usual "middle of the road" approach but that the consultant will be more creative. The county will pay the consultant about $250,000.

"It gives us more control from the start," said Councilman Jeff Sax, R-Snohomish. "The role of the executive is not to write county policy. The role of the executive is to enact county policy."

The consultant team includes land-use attorney Sandy Mackie, of the Perkins-Coie law firm, who Koster said will be able to assess the risks of the council's decisions. If the council is considering a large buffer, for example, Mackie can gauge the prospects of a lawsuit if they don't require the buffer at all.

Kristin Kelly, who leads the Snohomish County branch of the environmental group 1000 Friends of Washington, said a "whatever they can get away with" approach concerns her.

"Our approach is that we really just want to do the best job for all people," she said.

Kelly's group has joined other area environmental and citizens groups to collect what the state calls "best-available science," the data the county must use to make decisions about environmentally sensitive areas.

"We all believe the good protection of our water sources is important to the health of our people and the health of our wildlife and the quality of our life here in Snohomish County," Kelly said.

A council document about the review process lists changes the council will consider. Among them: adopting environmental restrictions that are softer in urban areas than in rural areas and exempting some areas from buffer requirements. At the same time, the council may strengthen some restrictions, by subjecting existing property uses to new rules.

Councilman Dave Gossett, D-Mountlake Terrace, said Mackie's history concerned him.

The attorney has publicly criticized the state for saying a fisheries study was "best-available science" even though some scientists had said parts of the study were "not good science."

"His view of science doesn't always agree with 'best available,' " Gossett said. "He tends to dismiss most of what is generally regarded as 'best-available science' as unscientific."

Mackie said he just wants to bring up the issues. The decision is the council's.

"I don't bring an agenda to the table," he said. "What I'm trying to do is get a dialogue going."

Gossett said conversations with Mackie and Koster have eased his concerns.

Steve Holt, who handles growth issues for the county executive's office, said he had some concerns about Mackie's history but believes they have been resolved.

Holt wouldn't comment on the policy issues the council plans to consider.

"I think there are legitimate questions there," he said of the possibility of easing development rules in urban areas.

The council is accepting written comments from some groups, including environmental groups, the building community and area tribes, until Tuesday, followed by a series of public workshops next month. The update must be finished by the end of the 2005, but the council is trying to complete it one year early.


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