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State revamps shoreline guidelines

New state shoreline regulations agreed to by regulators and business groups are an attempt to restore balance between environmental protection and human use, according to a Bainbridge attorney instrumental in their development.

But it’s too soon yet to determine what impact, if any, those guidelines may have on the current debate over Bainbridge Island’s shoreline policies.

“The state and city regulations were programs drafted by scientists, which lacked perspective,” said attorney Dennis Reynolds. “The new state guidelines attempt to restore some perspective.”

Under state law, shorelines are regulated by cities and counties, but the local programs must conform to state guidelines. For the past year-plus, Bainbridge has been updating its shoreline program. But in the midst of that process, the state guidelines were withdrawn – the result of a lawsuit by business interests claiming the guidelines were too restrictive.

To resolve the suit, the state Department of Ecology and attorneys for the plaintiffs, including Reynolds, negotiated a new set of guidelines to which local programs must conform. Those guidelines were released Friday.

The new guidelines differ from the old in several respects, Reynolds said, most notably by doing away with the notion of restoring shorelines to some prior condition and substituting the concept of “no net loss” of ecological function – maintaining the status quo.

“You can’t even talk about restoration unless you’re talking about new development,” he said.

Another difference, he said, is that the new state regulations generally permit private docks, piers and bulkheads except in critical habitat areas such as eelgrass beds and mud flats.

City planning staffer Peter Best, the point person for the city’s shoreline update, said Monday he has not reviewed the new state guidelines in enough detail to know how they will impact the city’s process.

“Generally, it doesn’t look to me like the new guidelines are all that different from the old, but we will need to take a close look at that,” Best said. “The state guidelines are coming out at the right time, though, between the planning commission and city council consideration.”

At one level, the new state guidelines may provide support for some of the more controversial city proposals, such as requiring trees to be planted near the shorelines to provide shade for spawning areas and food for juvenile salmon.

While local opponents of the requirement questioned whether trees make much difference, the state guidelines do make reference both to their shade- and food-providing function.

Reynolds, who represents the Bainbridge Concerned Citizen group that has spearheaded opposition to the city proposals, says the debate should not turn on such specific terms.

“There is no doubt that trees do provide some function on the shoreline,” he said. “But in the overall picture, it makes no sense to say that the insects that might drop from trees on the Bainbridge Island shoreline have an impact on the salmon population.”

One area of current city practice that could be affected by the new guidelines involves shoreline activities that are exempted by state law from permitting requirements, including single-family residences or normal bulkheads.

The city requires applicants for exempt activities to obtain letters stating that the exemption does apply. It may also attach conditions.

That will change, Reynolds said.

“Under the new guidelines, if you’re exempt, you’re exempt,” he said. “There won’t be any more conditions involved.”

City long-range planner Libby Hudson said Monday morning that she had not reviewed the new regulations, and couldn’t comment on what changes the city might make to its current practices.

The Bainbridge Planning Commission should wrap up its review of the shoreline program the first week in January, then hand the issue off to the council, which Reynolds says is the appropriate decision-maker.

“These are problems of balancing priorities,” he said. “The policy-makers are the ones that will have to decide.”

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