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‘Critical areas’ get the next look

While the city council continues to wrestle with both shoreline and subdivision ordinances, it will begin this week taking a fresh look at its code covering “critical areas.”

Ordinance revisions could lead to expanded no-build buffer areas around wetlands and near slopes.

The principal objective is to make sure the city’s critical-area rules are based on “best available science,” according to planning staff member Steve Morse.

“We want to make people aware of current research in the area, and let them know that we are starting the revision process,” Morse said.

The effort kicks off with an open house from 6-8 p.m. March 20 in the council chambers.

The review, required by the state Growth Management Act, must be completed by the end of 2004, Morse said.

At the workshop, Morse said, he hopes to hear feedback on the city’s existing ordinance, which apples to wetlands, geologically hazardous slopes, aquifer-recharge areas, frequently flooded areas and wildlife conservation areas.

The area where significant changes are possible involve required separations from streams and wetlands. A so-called model code developed by the state called for dramatic increases – frequently a doubling – of buffers around wetlands areas.

But the model code – word of which had prompted some expressions of citizen concern – has been withdrawn, Morse said, and he does not know when a substitute might become available.

“I wouldn’t have recommended using that model code as a starting point,” he said, “because we have had 10 years experience with our existing ordinance. That would have been too radical a change.”

Any expansion of stream or wetland buffers could reduce the amount of buildable land on the island, Morse said, because of the number of areas involved.

Under state law, cities are required to demonstrate that they applied best available science to regulations protecting critical areas. State regulations attempt to define best available science, spelling out a preference for peer-reviewed information assembled by trained, appropriately credentialed scientists.

The use of best available science came under a storm of citizen criticism with respect to the island’s shorelines when a technical advisory committee recommended 50-foot buffers of native vegetation immediately landward of much of the island’s shorelines.

Those recommendations, significantly modified by the Planning Commission, are awaiting consideration by the council.

The council is also considering revisions to the subdivision ordinance in the wake of a Washington Supreme Court case last summer that struck down a requirement imposed by the city of Camas that 30 percent of the land in each development be set aside as open space.

Bainbridge requires set-asides on a sliding scale ranging from 40 percent in smaller-lot subdivisions up to 80 percent in areas zoned for two-and-one-half-acre lots.

The latest proposal, currently being revised, deletes the open space requirement, but substitutes a requirement for a perimeter buffer and retention of certain trees.

Practically speaking, the subdivision and critical-area ordinances are intertwined, according to members of the development community.

“Why are they doing each one piecemeal when they don’t have an interconnecting vision of what the whole thing is going to look like?” said Dick Allen of Hillandale Homes. “They need to be done together with an awareness of what one of the ordinances does to the others.”

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