Jefferson County commissioners doing critical thinking on proposed critical areas law
By Jeff Chew, Peninsula Daily News
PORT TOWNSEND, WA - 3/9/08 — The three Jefferson County commissioners could take action on all or part of a controversial proposed ordinance to regulate buffer zones for wetlands on Monday.
"I think we might come to a lot of decisions on Monday," said Commissioner David Sullivan, D-Cape George.
"Whether we come to all the decisions, I don't know."
The commissioners face a March 18 deadline to approve a critical areas ordinance.
They will take their first public shot at consideration of the proposed law at 5 p.m. in the Superior Court room on the third floor of the Jefferson County Courthouse, 1820 Jefferson St., Port Townsend.
Commissioner Phil Johnson, D-Port Townsend, said he does not expect a final decision until March 18.
Commissioner John Austin, D-Port Ludlow, believes that "It would be good to make a decision."
Public comment on the proposal ended March 5.
The critical area ordinance would regulate construction near Jefferson County's streams and wetlands through the creation of development buffer zones intended to protect water quality and the environment.
Debate over the proposal generated a split between property rights supporters and environmental interests.
While some have said that the ordinance is critical to the county's quality of life, others question whether an environmental threat really exists in the rural county.
Many want the responsibility of land stewardship to be left to individual property owners, with county government monitoring their progress.
The latest draft ordinance has been in the making since early 2005.
But, Sullivan said, "This really just got put in our court after the hearing on the Planning Commission's recommendation."
The Planning Commission approved the proposed ordinance 6-2, with one excused absence, on Dec. 12, and forwarded the proposal to the county commissioners for final approval.
Sullivan said that the Planning Commission has debated the pros and cons of the proposal since 2006.
County Department of Community Development staff will bring their concerns to the commissioners Monday night.
"It's going to be interesting about how staff will answer our questions," Sullivan said.
Ultimately, he said, "We have to do something that's legal, practical and affordable."
As proposed, the ordinance sets different buffer zones that clear development distances from streams, wetlands and migration channels.
The proposal includes a new stewardship plan that would allow property owners more flexibility.
The state Growth Management Hearings Board has extended the ordinance's adoption deadline four times to allow the county to address public concerns about wetland science, flood plains, agricultural exemptions from the ordinance and the zones in which rivers and streams move, or channel migration zones.
The proposed ordinance is part of an agreement struck with the Washington Environmental Council, a state lobbying group that argued before the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board in 2005 that Jefferson County hadn't done enough to protect the environment.
WEC filed a petition in February 2005 after the county updated its critical areas code in late 2004.
The group said that the county failed to comply with the state Growth Management Act regarding critical environmental areas such as wetlands, migration channels and flood zones.
County commissioners settled with WEC in executive session behind closed doors, saying it was necessary to avoid a long, costly legal battle.
In May 2006, the Jefferson County Department of Community Development drafted a critical areas ordinance update that in some cases increased by 100 percent the wetland buffer zones — the largest being 300 feet.
Jefferson County farmers protested in June 2006 by circling the courthouse with sign-bearing tractors.
They feared that 300-foot buffers would make it impossible to develop their properties.
WEC officials said agriculture would be exempt, and the critical areas draft now includes that exemption.
Port Townsend-Jefferson County Editor Jeff Chew can be reached at 360-385-2335 or email@example.com.