Explosive development drives interest in county’s Comp Plan update

By R. Brent Lyles

Executive Director, Friends of the San Juans

Judging by construction activity and real estate transactions, the pressures and speed of development in San Juan County have never been greater. Fortunately, the county’s Comprehensive Plan, or Comp Plan, can be a key tool for managing growth and protecting our county’s rural character. Right now, citizen interest is growing in how this tool can best ensure that sensible, science-based planning and environmental stewardship guide the growth and development in our county.

During the Comp Plan update process, the County can change the designation, or zoning, of land. Right now, the county is currently considering opening up 127 acres of protected forest lands to allow for more intense development. The parcels in question are currently zoned as Forest Resource Lands, but the county’s Planning Commission recently voted to preliminarily recommend changing these parcels to the Rural Farm Forest designation. This Rural Farm Forest zoning would allow more development on these currently forested lands, such as vacation rentals and non-forestry commercial uses, and it would triple the allowance for impervious surface on the properties.

In San Juan County, protecting our existing Natural Resource Lands, including both Forest Resource Lands and Agricultural Resource Lands, is critically important. Natural Resource Lands support our local farmers and foresters, preserve our rural character, and have benefits like protecting air and water quality, aiding aquifer recharge, providing access to recreational activities, sequestering carbon, and improving wildlife habitat and connectivity. This protection can be achieved right now during the Comp Plan update process.

In response to this opening up of protected forest lands to development, citizens are mobilizing to oppose this decision through efforts like Friends of the San Juans’ Comp Plan Action Team. Both at the Planning Commission and County Council meetings, our community has the opportunity to weigh in on whether opening up these Forest Resource Lands to more intense development makes the most sense for environmental stewardship, climate resilience, and preserving the rural character of our island communities.

In addition to the Comp Plan’s importance for guiding how and where development unfolds in the San Juan Islands over the next 20 years, it also lays the groundwork for the county’s response to the climate crisis. To their credit, the County’s Community Development staff have done an admirable job in making climate-forward recommendations to the Planning Commission on certain environmental issues in the Comp Plan update. For example, newly proposed language in the Comp Plan update includes recommendations for a County-wide climate change impact study, energy-efficiency upgrades, and climate mitigation in a variety of contexts.

But strong climate action requires strong voices from our community, monitoring and engaging in the process to make sure our county’s climate response is aggressive and bold; climate action should be a requirement, not just a recommendation. Through the Comp Plan Action Team and other initiatives, Friends of the San Juans is joining with other organizations and community efforts, encouraging San Juan County’s citizens to engage effectively in the Comp Plan update process, both to address the current explosion of development and to put climate response and climate resiliency front and center. For information about the Comp Plan Action Team’s monthly Zoom meetings, email Brent Lyles at brent@sanjuans.org.

For more resources about engaging in the Comp Plan, visit sanjuans.org/sjc_comp_plan.