tLifelong islander seeks balance in growth and conservation
“I want people to be aware that the Critical Areas Ordinance review is happening and make an educated decision on how to be involved if they want to be,” says Orcas Island business and property owner Patty Miller.
She is a member of the Eastsound Planning Review Committee, and has served on the Citizens’ Stormwater Utility Planning Committee and the now-defunct Ferries’ Task Force. She currently serves as a member-at-large of the Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) Review committee.
Critical areas are identified as wetlands, fish and wildlife habitats, geologically hazardous areas, the critical aquifer recharge area (CARA) and frequently flooded areas. The county is required to revise all these areas as part of revising the county’s environmentally sensitive areas ordinance, adopted in 1998 with minor amendments made in 2005. The revised ordinance will be titled the Critical Areas Ordinance.
“Anyone who owns property and ever plans to develop it in any way should know how this ordinance is changing,” says Miller. “And on a second level, if your property has wet areas or is near a creek or stream or on the shoreline, or in a critical aquifer recharge area, you should be very aware of what is changing.”
Property owners involved with making decisions about where they can build their house or develop their property will face more restrictive wetlands delineation and setback rules, says Miller.
The more restrictive rules must be applied to meet state requirements,and the CAO Committee is tackling the rules for the identified areas one area at a time. They have completed their initial work for the CARA modification, working with the committee reviewing water sources, led by Vicki Heater of the County Health Department this spring.
Currently the CAO Review committee is in the middle of revising the ordinance for the fish and wildlife habitat areas.
While the committee’s goal is to have their work completed by the end of the year, “that would be optimistic,” says Miller. The group meets twice a month.
Representatives from the Planning Commission, the Association of Realtors, builders, the Marine Resource Committee, the Friends of the San Juans, a land-use attorney, farmers, and two members-at-large (Miller and Ryan Drum from Waldron Island) sit on the county-wide CAO Review Committee which was formed in 2007 as part of the push to achieve county compliance with the Growth Management Act (GMA).
“Because we are so late in updating the environmentally critical areas ordinance, there’s been a lot of new state requirements we have to meet, including the obligation to use the ‘best available science’ such as the State Department of Ecology’s wetlands manual,” says Miller. She cites as another example the long list of animal species that must be protected to meet state and federal law, as well as local rules.
Miller sees the committee’s work as “trying to decipher minimum requirements mandated to us and where we have options – weeding through the muck to get to the minimum requirements can be huge. While I believe strongly in protecting the environment, there’s got to be a balance. We have a lot of spokesmen for the environmental concerns. We need to have some voice for property rights so we strike a good balance.”
Her civic involvement stems from her personal experience: “I have a beautiful piece of property in Olga that I want to be a good steward of, and I’m also a strong believer in property rights and minimizing regulation by maximizing education. The CAO Review process is a pretty good way to get educated, and it also ensures a good balance of viewpoints on our committee.”
In 2006, Miller was part of the committee that formulated the county’s stormwater ordinance. Following the County Council’s approval of the stormwater ordinance that came out of the citizen committee’s work, voters rejected the funding mechanism it provided.
“I’ve been vocal in the process of stormwater that the County needed to educate the public and they just flat-out didn’t do it and that’s why it backfired.
“I harp on getting the message out there all the time so people are aware of what’s being considered. I don’t think people should sit through every meeting or digest all the information, but if you plan to develop property on the shoreline, near a creek or stream or on wetlands, or care about what other people are doing in these areas, now is the time to get involved.
“Most of us have a small subset of facts or make a decision after listening to a small set of facts presented in a biased fashion.
I want people to hear the facts with an open mind and make an informed decision and raise concerns during the process rather than after the fact.
“There are people who think if we don’t plan for growth then we won’t have growth. We haven’t done a good job at planning but we sure have changed. I don’t view it any differently than planning for retirement.”