San Juan County, WA: Committee says county should abandon GMA


By Ted Grossman
Islands Weekly

San Juan County, WA - It’s been more than a dozen years since San Juan County began writing a growth management plan. Although more than a million dollars of county money has been spent, there is no end in sight, said Jim Nelson of the Eastsound Planning Review Committee.

Nelson expressed his frustration with the Growth Management Act on Nov. 7, after the Western Washington Growth Hearings Board determined that the county's plan continues to be out of compliance with the Act. Appeals of that decision have been filed.

Nelson suggested that the county ask its state representatives to write legislation allowing it to walk away from GMA unpunished. “We’re at a stage when this would be an appropriate time to ask for some help,” Nelson said.

Eastsound committee member Terry Gillespie liked the idea. “There would be a huge collective sigh of relief if we opted out.”

But San Juan County Planner Pat Mann warned there would be dire consequences, namely the loss of state funding for transportation, if it failed to comply with GMA. Committee members laughed at the threat, because state voters failed to approve Referendum 51, the ballot measure that would have increased the gas tax to generate billions of dollars for transportation projects.

It may be very difficult for the county to walk away. That’s what Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord told the County Commission, although attorneys for Chelan County told the county it might be able to do it.

Mann seemed to feel that the portion of the county plan dealing with Eastsound could easily be brought into compliance with state mandates at relatively little cost.

However, Commissioner John Evans wasn’t convinced, particularly if Eastsound continues to be designated an Urban Growth Area. Evans said the UGA designation will require Eastsound to develop a facility to handle stormwater. It could be very expensive and “it will have to be funded by the people of Orcas Island or the property owners in Eastsound because there is no county money” for such a facility.

Eastsound committee member Mike Stolmeier was not convinced that this was true, and the panel admitted it simply didn’t know how much money it would cost to deal with stormwater.

Evans thinks Eastsound might be better off to scrap the UGA designation and become a Limited Area of More Intense Rural Development. Evans compared GMA to a farm house that looks beautiful from the distance “but the closer we get to UGA, the uglier it gets.”

Evans believes that a Limited Area designation would cost the county far less money to implement than a UGA, and would allow Eastsound to maintain its rural character.

Evans didn’t get a lot of support for his idea. Eastsound committee Chairwoman Lisa Byers said it was not a good idea to undo everything that has been done over the past 12 years. “We’ve put gobs and gobs of hours into this,” she said. “I fear another cycle.”

Evans conceded that it would be up to the people of Orcas Island, not him, to determined whether Eastsound should be a UGA or a Limited Area.

Eastsound committee members will invite representatives of all key agencies dealing with Eastsound to its next meeting. These include the Port of Orcas, Eastsound Water Users Association, Eastsound Sewer District, and county Department of Public Works. The meeting will take place Nov. 28, 1 p.m., at Smugglers Villa Resort.

Related Story:

County Prosecutor says Growth Hearings Board is doing its job

County Prosecutor Randy Gaylord issued this statement Wednesday in response to County Commission comments that the county should 'opt out' of the Growth Management Act process.

What does the recent decision from the state growth board mean for San Juan County? Rather than revolt against land-use planning, we should take stock in where we have been, where we are going and how we should get there.

The Legislature enacted the Growth Management Act to keep rural areas rural, protect the forest, agriculture and mineral resources, and direct development toward cities, towns and villages. The GMA imposes basic guidelines and rules to achieve the 13 goals of the Act. Planning is done by local governments. The Growth Management Hearings Board only rules on appeals that are filed and then only on those portions of the plan that are challenged.

San Juan County has chosen to plan under the GMA for 10 years. We cannot "opt out." The first appeals to the Growth Management Hearings Board were filed by citizen groups in 1999. Throughout the appeals process, the Growth Management Hearings Board has time and again complimented the county at hearings, and in its opinions, on the outstanding work done by its planners and the Prosecutor's Office.

The growth board has recognized the limitations of our small, rural county. And many unique approaches to planning have been brought forth — such as the Waldron Subarea Plan, the variety of rural densities, and the regulations to preserve our rural character.

When we look back and see all that we have accomplished in the past 10 years, it is quite impressive. Notwithstanding challenges from all quarters, the growth board has approved your Vision Statement, the Official Maps, the text of the Comprehensive Plan and the development regulations. The county has been overruled by the growth board only when the county completely omitted a plan element required by law (capital facilities planning in Lopez Village and wastewater planning in Eastsound), persisted with a feature that is contrary to the law (suburban lots in rural lands), or failed to fully explain and describe its decision (accessory dwelling units).

Our commissioners made a fundamental decision two years ago that Orcas, Lopez and San Juan islands would each have their "fair share" of land for housing and business opportunities to accommodate growth. This led to the establishment of unincorporated growth areas of Eastsound and Lopez Village.

The growth board has complimented the county on undertaking this difficult task of planning for capital facilities and allowing compact, affordable housing in Eastsound and Lopez Village, stating, "the concept of establishing two unincorporated (growth areas) not only complies with the GMA, but it appears from this record to be the only viable alternative available to the county." The growth board also warned that the "sticker shock" of capital facilities construction would compel us to adjust the boundaries of Eastsound and Lopez Village.

San Juan County will succeed in planning for Eastsound and Lopez Village under the GMA. Because Lopez Village and Eastsound are unincorporated communities, without their own local governments, the obligation for coordinating this planning falls on San Juan County. The county cannot assign it to others. Historically, the leaders of towns, villages and cities — not counties — take on responsibility for capital facilities planning for water, sewer and drainage systems. But on Orcas and Lopez islands, we have no one other than the county to do this work.

The tension being felt by the Board of County Commissioners when the growth board orders the county to go back to the drawing board to resolve and fine-tune these difficult issues is common to other counties around the state. The Growth Management Act contains compromises between political viewpoints. Some of the controversies were deferred to another forum and another time. This is why we feel the tension today.

As long as the county does its homework, its choices are only limited by the bounds of the Growth Management Act. But, the county cannot forsake one goal, such as housing for all income levels, for another goal, such as rural character. The county must balance all the goals, follow the structure provided by the Act and the process that the law provides.

Ten years ago, our leaders chose to plan because planning had a price and we wanted to take advantage of the money and guidance provided by the state. We have learned that planning has a price today and, if we don't plan, a higher price for our children. While $1.3 million over the course of 10 years may seem like a lot of money, we have leveraged this money with grants to bank great value. Other rural counties have spent far more than that, especially when using private attorneys instead of local prosecutors.

At the county's budget meetings last week, Commissioner Chairman John B. Evans expressed a desire to conclude the first round of GMA planning in 2003. This may be possible, but not if we debate issues that have already been decided by the Legislature, the precedents of the growth board, and the courts.

As a member of the faculty on Growth Management training for planners and lawyers, your prosecuting attorney has taught the principles of the GMA to attorneys throughout the state. Your county attorneys give serious consideration to all approaches and will continue to advise on the best and most prudent course of action.

The Growth Management Hearings Board of Washington state is doing its job. San Juan County can accomplish its goals if we work together and if our commissioners listen to their citizens, listen to their planners, listen to their attorneys, and act promptly in a manner consistent with the law and the vision for our county's future.


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