Shoreline regs may be tightened

But waterfront owners wonder how much say they’ll have in the process.

Buried in a gravelly beach in the shadow of the Agate Pass Bridge, near-microscopic eggs of foraging fish are incubating.

This shallow stretch of shoreline is not just prime habitat for spawning smelt, sand lances and herring, but eelgrass and hard shell clams as well, according to state scientists.

In fact, the entire Bainbridge shoreline is considered critical habitat for juvenile chinook salmon, which will feast on those hatched forage fish come spring.

The city has begun the process of amending its Critical Areas Ordinance to protect not just steep slopes and wetlands inland, but also “marine critical areas” around the island.

Those protections could include greatly widened vegetation buffers and added regulations for docks, floats and bulkheads combined into a uniform set of regulations for minimizing impacts to underwater species.

“Wildlife habitat does not exist just within political boundaries and property lines,” said Peter Namtvedt Best, coordinator for the city’s Shoreline Stewardship Program.

Impetus for the amendment was a legal challenge from across the bridge to meet state law.

When the CAO was revised in 2005, the council did not include protections for nearshore habitat, believing that its Shoreline Management Master Program included sufficient safeguards.

That decision was appealed by the Suquamish Tribe, which holds fishing and harvesting rights in the area. It argued that the SMMP protections did not meet criteria mandated by state law.

A city-commissioned study by the Battelle Company confirmed that the island’s SMMP would probably be considered inadequate for preserving nearshore habitat, especially because it allows for dramatically varied buffer widths onshore.

With that in mind, the City Council decided to forgo an official ruling from the Central Kitsap Growth Hearings Board in favor of amending the CAO and settling with the tribe.

“It became apparent that if we went to the Growth Hearings Board, we would lose and be doing the same (amendment) in three months anyway,” city planner Steve Morse said.

Planners will hone the new regulations over the spring with public comment and input from a city-appointed Environmental Technical Advisory Committee, and bring that amendment before the council this summer. Any protections added to the CAO will be included in the SMMP when it is updated in 2011.

At a scoping meeting Tuesday, potential regulations were floated past a crowd of about 30 islanders. Many favored the habitat protections, but concerns surfaced about over-regulation of waterfront property and how much say homeowners would actually have in a process propelled by legal pressure.

“We know that it’s important to protect marine habitat,” one attendee said. “But I also think property owners need to realize how this could really impact them.”

Planners are drawing code ideas from a state “Interim Guide” for protecting nearshore habitat. Offshore, new rules would be aimed at minimizing displacement from docks and pilings as well as the patches of shade beneath them. Construction times could also be regulated to avoid interrupting fish spawning.

Onshore regulations could limit the use of bulkheads and other shoreline “armor” and tree removal while expanding buffers around native vegetation.

The majority of rules up for discussion are already required by the city or numerous government agencies whose jurisdictions overlap offshore. The use of treated wood on docks, for example, is already prohibited by the city while the Army Corps of Engineers requires bottom surveys before new piers can be constructed.

Several at Tuesday’s meeting told planners that strict prohibitions should be avoided and rules should be implemented on a case-by-case basis.

It would be unfair to limit the construction of a dock if there were no sea life in the area to be damaged, one homeowner said. “You should have to prove there is something to protect before you prohibit something.”

Planners will gather initial public comment through March 14 to be incorporated into a report for the City Council with further comment periods planned for later stages of the project.

Namtvedt Best said Tuesday’s scoping meeting was scheduled early in the process so residents could influence how the city approaches meeting state law.

“Where public comment is very valuable, is that we can write the regulations in a variety of ways,” he said. “Ultimately we have to meet objective scientific standards, but we can do that in a way that works best for people.”

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