Council wants to extend SMP update deadline

Grumblings among shoreline property owners over the city’s Shoreline Master Plan (SMP) update have slowly grown as the process continues to unfold over the course of 2011.

Although the update is still in its early formation stage the City Council got an earful this week.

“People usually don’t get involved until they get panicked, and this is now a high-level panic issue,” said Mayor Kirsten Hytopoulos.

The long process to update the city’s policies and regulations to reflect the state’s 2003 SMP guidelines began months ago, and four volunteer citizens groups, along with city staff, have yet to present anything more than the initial portion of their preliminary policy recommendations.

Those recommendations have yet to be vetted through the rest of the citizen group process, the city planning commission or council, but that hasn’t done much to quell fears from property owners who may see a major impact to their homes or properties.

With controversy growing in the community, the council isn’t confident it can tackle the SMP in October, while simultaneously working on the city’s budget. City staff will now take council’s direction to file an extension with the Department of Ecology to finish the update in early 2012 to provide more time for review and discussion.

Fresh from the community ward meetings this week, several councilors noted that the SMP process is both a complicated and contentious issue in the community.

“At the end of the ward meeting I realized that if we wait until October to engage the entire council in this process there is a tremendous learning curve to get up to speed because a lot of information and hard work is already being done,” said Councilor Kim Brackett. “I felt very much at a disadvantage trying to understand and engage [with the community].”

The four citizen work committees orchestrating the process thus far with the city planners released their draft policy revisions in February for preliminary public comment, and are currently hammering out the draft regulations to be released this summer.

Representatives from shoreline property owner groups, environmental groups and citizens at large make up the committees and were assigned to one of three topics including shoreline modifications, shoreline vegetation and existing/new development, or a fourth group, the SMP task force, who look at the overall update for consistency.

The Environmental Technical Advisory Committee (ETAC), made of members appointed by the city, provides the city with the technical and scientific advice for the SMP update.

The plan was for the citizen committee review to give their recommendation to the planning commission for review this summer, who would then put their recommendation to the council for review in the fall to meet a December 2011 completion goal.

Currently the task groups are about one month behind, according to Deputy City Manager Morgan Smith, and she’s worried it will be too difficult to pack an estimated 10 meetings into two months on top of the budget season.

The city has already received approximately 80 comments from community members on the draft goals and policies.

Shoreline Master Planner Libby Hudson said that many of the comments are prematurely addressing the regulations, which are still being reviewed in the citizen groups for release this summer.

“As we move forward with regulations, that is where we will run into the contentious issues like buffers and whether existing structures are non-conforming,” said Hudson.

Some existing homes that were legally built may not conform with the new regulations in the SMP update, and would thus become non-conforming structures.

A non-conforming home will have limitations to how it can be maintained, repaired or expanded, which has raised red flags for many who fear for the value of their homes.

In April, a letter to the city by islander Gary Tripp faulted the city for not properly informing citizens and shoreline property owners about the process.

“The city has failed in its obligation to its citizens and shoreline property owners to tell them that they are planning to convert/take 150 feet of their property for open space and make their homes and front yards nonconforming,” said Tripp.

Tripp’s letter argued that SMP policies place restrictions requiring property owners to allow their property to be eroded by the sea, which doesn’t fairly balance private property rights and environmental concerns and makes normal residential uses such as recreation areas, lawns, patios and gardens non-conforming and illegal within 200 feet of the shoreline.

The Bainbridge Shoreline Homeowners board of directors also sent a letter to the city outlining their economic concerns about impact of the shoreline regulations on homeowners.

“Every well-meaning regulation adds to the cost of building or remodeling a home and regulations that make legally built homes ‘non-conforming’ place an unfair burden on their owners,” said the letter.

Rockaway Beach resident Albert Greiner addressed his concerns over how a property with a “no-touch” or non-conforming yard will be devalued over time and a property owner would find difficulty in selling a non-conforming home that can’t be financed.

The regulations on issues like docks have not been created yet, but the policies limit the size to the minimum necessary and prohibit docks in areas with physical limitations.

The draft policies on bulkheads, which are used to protect homes from erosion and stabilize the shoreline, will discourage hard armoring in favor of soft armoring and will only be allowed if the property owner can clearly demonstrate there is an imminent threat to the primary structure.

The citizen groups are still mapping the shoreline designations and will accept public input during the planning commission and City Council reviews.

In reaction to concerns from citizens, the council wants to speed up its own education process and give the community a more broad understanding on where these policy decisions are coming from, and their potential impact.

In the next couple of months the council plans to begin working with the community for some of the more contentious policy and regulation decisions.

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