Swelling debate on shoreline
State development rules pit owners, environmentalists
Susan Gordon; The News Tribune
When it comes to his land, Bob Bower doesn't like to be bullied.
The 56-year-old Olympia native lives on the waterfront near Mud Bay, raises honey bees and holly on nearby acreage and fears that new state shoreline rules rob him and his family of development rights.
"I don't think the Department of Ecology has the authority to do what they're doing," he said of the agency that issued the guidelines last fall. "I believe it is a taking of peoples' private property."
Opposition is mounting to the guidelines, which limit what landowners can do with undeveloped property near water.
Recently, the Thurston County Commission voted 2-1 to appeal the guidelines to the state Shorelines Hearings Board. In doing so, Thurston joined a long list of mostly rural counties and business organizations opposed to the rules. A hearing is scheduled in June.
The commissioners' vote outraged environmentalists such as Steve Langer, a 45-year-old psychologist who owns property on Henderson Inlet and lives nearby. "If we are at all serious about saving our water resources, our salmon, our shellfish and our wildlife we've got to protect our shorelines," he said.
The campaign against the guidelines took root long before they were implemented. It is led by the Association of Washington Business, with support from the Building Industry of Washington, the Washington Association of Realtors, among others. They insist that the guidelines overstep the Ecology Department's authority.
Local governments worry about the cost. As of Thursday, 185 cities and counties had filed claims demanding the state reimburse them for local revision of shoreline regulations, which must be changed within two years to conform with the guidelines. In all, the claims could cost as much as $21 million.
In the Legislature, lawmakers have so far shunned a proposal by Gov. Gary Locke to make it easier for counties to adapt to the guidelines by giving them money and additional time to do it.
Instead, the Senate recently passed a measure crafted by Majority Leader Sid Snyder (D-Long Beach) that would make it virtually impossible for the state to enforce the restrictions.
This is despite a January warning from Locke that he would not sign "legislation that would gut the Shoreline Management Act or the new guidelines."
The guidelines govern all new development near the water, including marine areas, rivers, lakes and streams too big to jump across. The rules, adopted in November, replaced regulations that hadn't been updated since voters approved the Shoreline Management Act in 1972.
The guidelines discourage construction of new bulkheads, docks and other hard structures that the Ecology Department says make erosion worse. They also limit development near the water's edge, where floods and other natural hazards can endanger lives and property.
Agency officials say the new guidelines do not apply retroactively and do not restrict farming or existing businesses.
Environmentalists say the rules protect the state's most vital, yet vulnerable areas - places crucial to the survival of salmon and other wild things. One path of the guidelines is designed to meet the habitat requirements of the Endangered Species Act, at least as it applies to salmon and steelhead.
City vs. country
Yet people such as Bower resent the intrusion. "It's not that we don't want to save salmon. But if the people of the state of Washington want to save salmon we are going to have to do this together, cooperatively," Bower said.
For 50 years, his family raised oysters in the tidelands near his home. Now Bower, a former Coast Guardsman, is chairman of the Thurston County Planning Commission and president of the South Sound Farm Bureau.
The new shoreline guidelines unfairly target rural residents, Bower said.
"The Department of Ecology is wielding a big hammer. They have basically given a pass to urban areas," he said. That's because the guidelines don't apply to developed areas unless they are redeveloped, Bower said.
The city vs. country argument is one Snyder eagerly exploits. "These rules will absolutely devastate the rural economy," he said. "We need to do something to get relief to the rural counties."
Last fall, the veteran lawmaker said he would be voted out of office if he supported the shoreline rules. Nobody in Seattle would stand for it if the Ecology Department tried to restrict development along Lake Washington the way the shoreline guidelines will limit growth in the coastal communities he represents, he insisted.
Senate Bill 5378, approved in a 28-21 vote Wednesday, would allow most counties and cities to ignore the guidelines. All would be allowed to opt out if the state doesn't pay what it costs to revise local regulations.
So far, the House hasn't acted on a shorelines measure. Rep. Hans Dunshee (D-Snohomish), a leader on a key committee and supporter of the new guidelines, promised to try to alleviate criticism and pass a bill Locke will sign.
"This, unfortunately, has turned into more of a cultural wars type of thing than a reasonable discussion," Dunshee said. He accuses the building industry and politicians he refuses to name of using scare tactics to rally opposition to the guidelines, which Dunshee believes are compatible with development. "There are people who want to make this Owl War II," he said, in reference to the imperiled spotted owl, whose habitat requirements cost jobs in the timber industry.
Locke said he isn't worried about the fact that neither legislative house has acted on his offer of $6 million and an extended time line for counties to adopt shoreline revisions. The Legislature hasn't seriously discussed the budget yet, he said.
The governor said he wasn't familiar with the Senate bill and reiterated his support for the guidelines, which he said will benefit future generations. "It's in our mutual interest to revise how we use shorelines," he said Wednesday. "Our proposal provides great flexibility."
The guidelines don't apply to the timber industry, or to agriculture, or to existing homes and businesses, Locke noted.
In Thurston County, Marj Yung, 65, who lives on Eld Inlet, worries about the future of the smelt that spawn near where a log bulkhead has washed away. Years ago, she helped collect signatures for the voter initiative that later became the Shoreline Management Act. Later, she served four years as county commissioner.
"Many counties do everything they can to avoid accepting responsibility for protecting the waters of the state," she said of the guidelines. "The development community and the anti-regulatory people have been chafing very hard at this."
Environmentalist Langer also insists government should do more to preserve the area.
"The near shore is essential for salmon recovery," said Langer, who has watched silver and chum salmon run up a creek through his land. At one point, he erected a fence to keep sheep out of the stream.
"All of us who own property are stewards of the land," he said. "We have an obligation to future generations not to screw it up."
Unfortunately, when it comes to development, landowners often ignore both the big picture and existing regulations, he said. "Every place I've seen developed along the water has blatantly ignored shoreline regulations and there's no penalty for it," he said. "Our shorelines are dying the death of 1,000 cuts."
Yung isn't optimistic about the future of the guidelines. "The pendulum swings back and forth on these issues," she said. "You always wonder how far it's going to swing back before it heads forward again."
* The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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