County comprehensive plan back under review

Some things in the San Juans always seem to remain the same — rapidly changing weather, orca sightings and discussions about the county comprehensive plan revisions.

“This will help determine what gets built, where and how much of it,” said county councilman Jamie Stephens. “It’s really important for people to get involved. This will set the land-use standard for the next 20 years.”

It was about 20 years ago that the county comprehensive plan went into effect and another roughly nine years before it became completely compliant with state regulations. The update is state-mandated and a review of the plan will start this March, according to San Juan County Planning Manager Linda Kuller at the Jan. 30 county council meeting.

This review, which will be completed by June, will include analyses of land capacity, land use, housing needs and the county’s vision statement, according to Kuller’s presentation. By September, drafts of these issues, as well as reports on transportation and the environment, will be completed. Open houses and surveys to inform the public will be held throughout this time. County council will hold a hearing to possibly adopt the revisions in February 2018.

“Our update purpose is to comprehensively review and update the comp. plan and development regulations to accommodate our next 20 years growth and to ensure compliance with the Growth Management Act amendments, reflect our local needs and reflect new data and current laws,” said Kuller at the Jan. 30 council meeting.

The review is all too familiar for long-time islanders like Joe Symons, who, with other committee members, helped to write the plan, starting in 1992. According to reports by The Journal in 1997, some islanders criticized the council’s adoption of the plan was rushed, there was inadequate time for public input and a lack of transparency. This led to lawsuits and rewrites until the 1998 adoption.

Symons was one of several to file a lawsuit against the plan’s 1998 revisions, claiming the plan’s “primarily rural” vision statement wasn’t consistent with its high buildout population. This was upheld by the GMA hearing board, and as a result, the county code was updated in 2007 to limit the sale of guest house building permits to 13 a year. Allowing every property owner to build a guesthouse in the county, said Symons, would double the county’s density.

Buildout, he said, is calculated by adding the maximum number of structures allowed to be built on a parcel after the parcel is fully subdivided.

“Here it is, years later, and the plan, by law, is up for review and update and the plan really has some fundamental flaws which have never really been properly addressed,” said Symons.

Infrastructure challenges, brought by the buildout population, is still not addressed in the plan, he added, including additional ferry dock needs or the prevention of saltwater intrusion in wells.

Erika Shook, director of San Juan County Community Development, agreed that the current comprehensive plan is confusing.

“There are charts and tables of demographics, population and existing land use, but they are not very user-friendly,” said Shook. “We want to take information from graphs and tables and show how that relates to the comprehensive plan to tell a story.”

Symons said the first step to the update should include an easily understood overview of the current plan so the public can review it compared to the vision statement. Eastsound Planning and Review Committee members recently illustrated the buildout of the area, as listed in the current comprehensive plan, said Symons. It can be viewed at

“Suddenly, there are three-story structures like apartment complexes [in Eastsound]. It blew people away when they actually saw images of what is on the books today,” he said.

Stephens suspects the plan’s vision statement won’t change and the biggest alteration to the update will be the county’s land-use designation map. For instance, he said, there is no land-use designation for mineral resource lands, although they are mentioned in the vision statement and there are several gravel pits in the county.

Also, the nonprofit thrift store Community Treasures should be located on a parcel designated rural industrial, but there are not enough parcels designated that way on San Juan Island. (See “Permit battle discussed at council” in The Journal’s Feb. 15 edition.)

“If someone wanted to move Community Treasures, there’s nowhere for them to move,” said Stephens.

The GMA was adopted in 1990 to create zoning and development regulations to curb urban sprawl and protect natural resources after a population influx in the state, according to the American Planning Association Washington chapter. San Juan County opted into the GMA to receive funds to implement the plan. Once committed to the GMA, counties can not opt out.

Symons is hopeful for the future about the comprehensive plan’s revision.

“San Juan County and the people have the opportunity to do it right or do it better, much better than it’s ever been done,” he said.

To stay up-to-date about the county comprehensive plan, visit and sign up for notices at Email comments about the project to Reports about the plan by Symons are available at

San Juan County Comprehensive Plan History:

1992: Work to create a comprehensive plan under the state’s Growth Management Act requirements begins with committees on each of the ferry-served islands.

1996: The comprehensive plan is adopted by council in a 2-1 vote on New Year’s Eve.

1998: The comprehensive plan becomes effective, after years of lawsuits and rewrites.

2007: After additional lawsuits, the comprehensive plan becomes GMA-compliant and completely effective when the county adopts a code to limit guest house permits sold, per year. This makes the plan’s vision statement to be rural and the buildout and density more consistent.

2018: An update to all sections of the comprehensive plan will be completed.