By Toby Cooper
Frustration over delays, inconsistencies and unwelcome surprises in building permit approvals has spilled into public view.
The building community is resolutely seeking an audience with county government to clear the backlog that is, in their view, clogging business traffic and impeding economic progress.
Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd in the Eastsound Fire Station on April 26, Tracy Betcher of Jen-Jay, Inc., Orcas Island’s leading consultant in matters pertaining to marine and upland permits, declared, “This meeting is not a b***h session. It is intended to clarify issues people are having with the permitting process so resolutions can be found.”
On May 5, County Manager Mike Thomas abruptly removed San Juan County Department of Community Development Director David Williams from his post, citing that his and Williams’ visions for the department did not “align.” Thomas announced a search for a replacement and designated Health and Community Services Director Mark Tompkins as interim director.
During the April meeting, despite Betcher’s caution, numerous complaints and case histories were aired to show a pattern of delays and abuses at the Department of Community Development. Council Chair Cindy Wolf and members of the Eastsound Planning and Review Committee also joined the conversation.
Accompanying Betcher to the podium was Jason Hensel, a veteran DCD inspector and a member of Jen-Jay’s consulting staff. Hensel’s own recent separation from DCD, though clouded in detail that neither party will discuss, renders him uniquely qualified to now serve as de facto ombudsman for the Orcas community of builders.
“Ideally, we would like to know that DCD is hearing from the builder-community on Orcas,” said Hensel, noting that he is hopeful that “there are solutions we can look forward to.”
Councilmember Wolf listened throughout the session and, before the meeting disbanded, offered to facilitate an open dialogue to include the Orcas builders, County Manager Thomas, DCD personnel and herself on behalf of the council. She echoed the themes that consistently arise in case histories — lack of timeliness, recurring inconsistencies in decision-making, and the need for early identification of specific issues.
Wolf stated the next day that she had already “been in contact with DCD to talk about last night’s meeting,” and was asking for specific dates.
The vortex of complaints surrounding DCD comes as no surprise. The department currently faces an almost impossible task of processing permits in an increasingly frenetic landscape of commercial activity. According to DCD, permit applications are straining the department’s capacities to the limit. In the past three years, year-over-year, applications for single-family homes alone were up 22.5%, then another 27.5%, and last year 77%.
The county is on track this year to process over 600 total permits of all categories — an unprecedented level of activity in historically rural, tranquil San Juan County, Williams stated shortly before his departure. Applications for conditional and provisional county land use permits likewise show a strongly rising trend, imposing still more workload requirements on the county.
During this time, DCD has acquired only one new designated employee. Former Chair of the San Juan County Planning Commission Sheila Gaquin became alarmed this year when Williams repeatedly canceled all commission meetings going back to February, claiming there was “nothing to decide,” even as permit activity was setting records. Gaquin is hopeful that Acting Director Tomkins can revive the Commission’s agenda.
DCD is mandated to ensure that all permitted developments in San Juan County are “safe and code-compliant.” Departmental “best-practice” canons require permits to be issued “evenly and equitably, across the board, without undue influence,” while concurrently respecting the fragile environment of the islands.
The environmental uniqueness of the San Juans adds to the maze of code requirements that pertain to permit approvals, including county, state, and federally sourced regulations. Of the roughly 17,000 individual tax parcels in the county, 30%are listed as having flood hazard risk, 48% hold wetland designations, 97% possess geohazards, and 61% are under federal critical habitat designations for wildlife, all contributing to code-related requirements, according to DCD sources. Hensel has compiled a 12-point consolidated list of issues for presentation to DCD and the County Council, listing conflicting code requirements, confusing technical aspects of Shoreline Tree Protection Zones, and more. Hensel chides DCD for “ignoring the research and conclusions of scientific professionals” by questioning the validity of wetland or other scientists.
However, DCD is required by law to review any and all supporting documents for compliance with regulations and consistency with the requested permit. Betcher, Hensel, Thomas, and Councilmember Wolf agree that a more efficient and more predictable permitting process is desirable. They acknowledge that additional personnel at DCD may be necessary.
Still, despite the quest for expediency, Hensel understands the need to address the overriding question, “What kind of island do we want?”
“We all want to pay attention to the requirements that support the ecological health of the islands,” he said after the April meeting. “We would love to see people build smaller and smarter to minimize the impact on the environment.”
Speaking to the same question before the County Council on May 2, Tina Whitman of Friends of the San Juans noted that we face a backdrop of “dwindling salmon, critically endangered Southern Resident Orcas, declining eelgrass and kelp, and
declining wetlands.” In her 20-plus years at Friends, Whitman counts at least 17, and as of now 18, planning directors at DCD.
“Here in the San Juans,” she continued, “the health of the environment is as essential to our economy as our construction industry. With climate change and more intense storms likely, these regulatory protections are even more important for people and their investments.”
In announcing Williams’ departure, Thomas acknowledged that the “current permit backlog is sizeable,” but that permits must be processed in accordance with “all of the County’s adopted development codes and environmental regulations.”