CAO update draws criticism

by Steve Wehrly

Journal Reporter

If the San Juan County Council needed proof it isn’t making anyone happy with its critical areas ordinance update, it got that proof at public hearings on Aug. 21.

Opponents and proponents, the planning staff and all six council members insist they want to protect both environmental values and property rights, but neither the environmentalists nor the defenders of property rights are happy with the draft ordinances. And both sides are warning the council that they may go to court to vindicate their positions.

Pat O’Day summed up the problem in his comments to the council: “You’re here to protect the environment and to protect property owners.”

The 1990 Growth Management Act and 1998 amendments to the Growth Management Act mandated that local governments prepare and periodically review comprehensive plans and development regulations, especially in five designated critical areas. Those areas are specified as aquifer recharge areas, geologically hazardous areas, frequently flooded areas, fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas, and wetlands.

The 1998 amendments specified that a “Best Available Science” standard must be incorporated into plans and regulations, and that by 2005 local governments were supposed to review and amend their ordinances concerning development within or adjacent to the critical areas. Extensions were granted March 2006, when county planners and the county Planning Commission began the review process.

Since then, amendments to ordinances regarding aquifer recharge areas, geologically hazardous areas and frequently flooded areas have been approved.

In recent months, the planning commission and the county council have focused on fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas and wetlands, both of which are now in the final stages of hearings, public testimony and amendment before the county council. The updated ordinance is scheduled to be finished by October of this year.

On Aug. 21, council hearings with public testimony were begun on the fish and wildlife and wetlands sections of the CAO. At those hearings, the testimony has been decidedly divergent. Everybody testifying, however, seemed to think the council was “protecting” only the other side.

Ed Kilduff, Frank Penwell, Bill Wright and O’Day all testified that they did not believe the planning department or the council was using “Best Available Science” in the draft ordinance. Wright said the proposed ordinance “fails legally and factually for reasonableness.”

The environmentalist side expressed similar comments, but from the opposite point of view. Stephanie Buffum, executive director of Friends of the San Juans, recommended the council consider a 150-page document her organization had submitted, with “50 distinct comments” and “17 specific legal issues” suggesting changes to the draft ordinance. San Olson of Lopez endorsed the Friends’ letter and called the CAO review “flawed” – a “daunting journey, subject to many crosscurrents” that would “incite litigation.” Olson said, “No docks or buoys damaging eelgrass should be permitted.”

After the hearing, Councilwoman Lovel Pratt insisted the entire council was “doing its best” to deal with the divergent views.

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