San Juan County needs to enforce permit rules

San Juan County needs to make a priority of enforcement of its development regulations.

A review of 19 dock permits by the San Juan Initiative Policy Group found that of 19 dock permits issued by the county, half of the completed docks did not match conditions of their permits. And eight dock floats were, on average, 52 feet larger than allowed. Oversized docks and dock floats can impact the growth of eelgrass, which is habitat for forage fish.

“A lot of people don’t realize that if you don’t have forage fish habitat, you don’t have fish,” Jim Kramer, a Policy Group staff member, said.

The problem seems to be that after permits are issued, there’s not enough follow-through to ensure compliance. “To get a dock permit, you have to go through four agencies,” former county commissioner Tom Cowan said. “But no one inspects the docks (after they are built).” In addition, code exemptions lack environmental review, he said.

The Policy Group discussed its report, “An Assessment of Ecosystem Protection: What’s Working, What’s Not,” June 26 in Mullis Community Senior Center. The San Juan Initiative is part of Gov. Christine Gregoire’s Puget Sound Initiative, a commitment to restore the health of our marine waters by 2020.

The effort is chaired by Bill Ruckelshaus, a part-time San Juan Island resident who served twice as director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, as well as assistant U.S. attorney general and FBI director.

In the report, Policy Group members were struck by a lack of accountability at the local level, as well as a low level of compliance with permit conditions. Ruckelshaus suggested the lack of follow-through in the county’s permit process is a “culture problem,” he said.

County Councilman Kevin Ranker, San Juan South, said the county doesn’t have the resources in place to monitor permit compliance. “All of our agencies are working at 110 percent,” Ranker said. “(Builders) get a county permit and that’s the end of it. We have to circle back.”

One county agency director suggested that if permit regulations were actively enforced, fines and fees would generate enough revenue to pay for more code enforcement officers.

Penalties for non-compliance with development regulations received the most votes as an “opportunity for improvement” in previous Policy Group meetings. “… rules without enforcement don’t work,” the report states.

Education and technical assistance are important. But enforcement has to be part of the equation. As policy group member Patty Miller said, if a builder turns down a job that doesn’t meet county code, he or she knows that the project will still be built by someone else. “It’s hard to do the right thing when there is no penalty for those who do not,” she said.

To learn more, visit And attend the Puget Sound Partnership workshop July 21, 1-4 p.m., at Friday Harbor High School.

By Richard Walker, Editor, San Juan Journal.