As a builder, I work with people every day who want to enjoy their property without causing harm to the natural beauty of the islands. As a long-term resident of the San Juans, I feel the same way. Unfortunately, I have found that often the laws and programs designed to protect the environment actually make it harder for people to do the right thing.
Have you ever tried to protect your beach from erosion? Scientists will tell you that bulkheads are not the best solution, since they often increase erosion next door and damage the beaches we cherish. The irony is that in our county, it’s easier to build a bulkhead than it is to find someone who can help design a more environmentally sensitive option.
That’s one of the reasons I’m part of a first-of-its-kind effort called the San Juan Initiative. Over the past year and a half, I’ve worked side by side with fellow community members from San Juan, Orcas and Lopez, as well as officials from the tribes, county, state and federal governments. Together, we undertook a careful study of the regulations that are intended to limit harm from shoreline development. We also examined education and incentive programs that have been created to encourage landowners to do the right thing.
Overall we found that much of the marine shoreline remains intact because landowners have retained trees and not bulkheaded their beaches. However, we also found that some of the most sensitive areas have been altered. Naturally eroding banks that feed beaches with gravel and sand, and support spawning forage fish have been bulkheaded. Trees and native vegetation have been cut down, eliminating habitat for wildlife, shade for fish eggs, and reducing the ability to filter pollutants from water runoff.
We confirmed that current programs often discourage people from doing the right thing. It is not easy to find experts who can offer good advice. There aren’t clear guidelines to inform us of what’s expected, and why. Out of frustration, people choose to proceed without proper permits or without compliance with existing laws. There are few incentives for people who care.
There is room for improvement in each aspect of living and building on the shoreline.
The next step for the San Juan Initiative is to develop tangible recommendations for such improvements. We’ll recommend better ways to protect two important parts of our natural system: the natural beach forming processes along the marine shoreline, and the retention of trees and native ground cover. In developing the recommendations, we’ll involve property owners, the building industry, realtors, county planners, tribes and state managers.
We’ll work for solutions that not only protect the beaches and trees, but also respect the interests of property owners. People should be supported with good information and clear guidelines. They should be rewarded for doing the right thing.
Please help us. You can learn more about what is working, and what is not, by reading our report at www.sanjuaninitiative.org. In October, you can help us refine a draft set of recommendations to county, state and federal governments by participating in public meetings.
Jonathan White is Co-chair of the San Juan Initiative.