Panel at “critical” stage of critical areas review

  • Tue Jun 17th, 2008 8:28pm
  • News


County reporter

Unanimous doesn’t always mean that everyone agrees. Take for instance the citizens’ group tasked with reviewing potential changes to San Juan County’s critical areas ordinance.

The panel of nine volunteers, all of whom were appointed by the County Council, voted without dissent March 20 to bring forward a series of changes that would modify the goals and policies set forth in the so-called “land-use element” of the county Comprehensive Plan. Such policies govern the steps that the county takes in protecting critical areas, like flood zones, wetlands and wildlife habitat.

But despite the unanimous endorsement, four members of the panel weren’t completely satisfied with the changes that had been proposed. Each vowed either to collaborate on a “minority report” or author one of their own as a means of taking issue with some of the modifications which the group – as a whole – endorsed, like ensuring there’s “no net loss” in the function and value of areas defined as critical, which include aquifer recharges areas listed as “critical”.

John Evans, executive director of the San Juan Builders Association, expects minority reports will be plentiful once the group completes its task. Those on the panel, he said, represent community interests which are often at odds over issues like growth and development. The pending critical areas ordinance update, required by the state of counties, like San Juan, which operate under the Growth Management Act, could place further restrictions on local property, he said.

“The debate is generally centered around the issue of what additional regulations are need to comply with the Growth Management Act,” Evans said. “It’s obvious we’re not going to have a consensus on all the issues.”

Also in a unanimous decision, the group endorsed a limited number of changes to the water-resources portion of the Comp Plan. But several on the panel, including Stephanie Buffum-Field, executive director of the Friends of the San Juans, and long-time Planning Commission member Barbara Thomas, felt those changes do not go far enough. The two agreed to co-author yet another minority report.

Thomas lobbied for tougher restrictions under which sewer and water lines can be extended beyond the boundaries of an urban-growth area. Tighter restrictions, she said, discourage the type of “urban sprawl” the state Growth Management Act was designed to prevent. “You have to have enormous walls to contain urban sprawl,” Thomas said. “You need every single tool in your kit to stop it.”

Others, Patty Miller of Eastsound, in particular, argue that local regulations already surpass what the GMA requires and restrictions placed on the sewer district in Eastound are the primary reason the county-created urban growth area remains out of compliance with state planning guidelines. Miller, who joined the committee following the recent resignation of Steve Hussey, said tougher restrictions would only compound the problem.

“Basically, our comprehensive plan is more restrictive than what the Growth Management Act requires in this situation,” she said. “This is the problem that’s keeping Eastsound from becoming compliant.”

(The group will re-evaluate its position on water-resources following a technical review of its recommendations by the county’s Water Resources Management Committee).

Evans said an even tougher task lies ahead as the panel plunges into the “wildlife and habitat” section of the Comp Plan. The give-and-take will involve setbacks, buffers and what may or may not be needed to protect local wildlife, he said.

Once its review is complete, the panel’s recommendations will forwarded to the Planning Commission, which will then weigh in with recommendations of its own. The County Council will consider opinions of both panels in determined what changes, if any, are needed.

The next meeting of the CAO Review Committee is Thursday, March 27 at 9:30 a.m., in the Parlor Room of the Orcas Hotel.