CAO – it's final and approved by county council

The San Juan County Council on Dec. 3 puts its stamp of approval on revisions to the final four sections of the Critical Areas Ordinance.

In a 5-1 decision, with Councilman Rich Peterson, North San Juan, opposed, the council approved an update of the Critical Areas Ordinance sections involving wetlands, fish and wildlife habitat and the "general" provisions that apply to all critical areas. The council approved revisions without dissent to the CAO sections that apply to geologically hazardous and frequently floods areas.

A fifth ordinance dealing with critical aquifer recharge areas was passed in 2008.

Although opposed to three of four CAO sections, Peterson was not entirely dissatisfied with the result.

"This ordinance is far better than I thought it would ever get, and I think we've done a good job on behalf of the citizens in bringing it this far," he said.

San Juan County's CAO was mandated to be updated in 2006, in accordance with the Washington state Growth Management Act and through the use of "best available science" and with an attempt at "no net-loss of functions and values" of critical areas. Over six years, three successive councils faced criticism from property rights and environmental advocates as they worked through ordinances addressing geologically hazardous and frequently flooded areas, wetlands, fish and wildlife conservation areas and general regulatory and definitional provisions applicable to all areas.

The revision has caused controversy in the community. Critics have called the CAO heavy-handed, immensely expensive, or bound to drive out the county’s middle and lower class – while others wondered if the measures may be too little, too late for threatened species.

On Dec. 3, the council spent more than seven hours considering 34 amendments, passing all but two. Recognizing that the ordinances were the result of extensive compromise, council members expressed satisfaction, in general, with the results.

Councilwoman Lovel Pratt commented on the "hard work and many compromises" that produced "the best product that can come out of this council."

Chairwoman Patty Miller, who kept the process moving through multiple public hearings and an extensive amendment process, expressed minor dissatisfaction with the Fish and Wildlife Habitat provisions, saying "I'm torn on this section, it's too complicated... but it addresses the majority of my concerns" before she brought the 10-year process to the final vote and completion.

An appeal of the ordinance can be filed with the Growth Management Hearings Board within 60 days of its publication. Appeals of a hearings board ruling can be filed in superior court.

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