Boost wetland, stream protection, panel says

Wider buffer proposals will be considered next by the City Council.

Saying local regulations are less stringent than those of other area cities, a citizen panel this week called for better protection of island streams and wetlands.

In any event, committee members said, the city should err on the side of caution.

“There’s something called ‘the precautionary principle,’ and there’s also something else called ‘the preservation of island life,’” committee member Cara Cruickshank told the City Council’s land use committee. “Our hearts are in this... We love this place, and we want to see it preserved.”

Her comments came during reports by four ad hoc committees charged with evaluating the city’s Critical Areas Ordinance.

The city is under state mandate to complete a seven-year review of its regulation of streams, wetlands, steep slopes, aquifer recharge areas and other environmentally sensitive zones. Regulations are to be linked to “best available science,” the prevailing literature.

Among the issues considered over the past month were the regulation of parcels constrained by sensitive areas; incentives and other non-regulatory alternatives; and habitat management plans for parcels as they are developed.

The most-anticipated findings pertained to the width of buffers around streams and wetlands, which has proved a regulatory flash point in other communities.

Committee members said Bainbridge requirements for stream buffers – within which construction and other activities are generally proscribed – are just half those of Kitsap County, and just one-third those of Pierce County.

Spokesman Mark Nadler conceded that committee members differed on their preference for protection, with some concerned over property rights issues.

There is also, he said, no linear relationship between buffer width and effectiveness – when it comes to pollution filtering and habitat protection, wider is only better up to a point.

Nevertheless, Nadler said, committee members found simple or strong majorities in recommending buffer widths of from 35 to 150 feet depending on stream type, and from 35 to 250 feet around wetlands.

Current city regulations mandate stream buffers of up to 50 feet, and setbacks around wetlands of 25 to 150 feet.

Committee members also expressed concern over the state of code enforcement, saying the city has not been sufficiently diligent in investigating buffer encroachments and the fouling of streams.

Among the recommendations was rewriting the Bainbridge Island code – derided as “messy” and poorly organized – and modeling it after ordinances in Kitsap County or other jurisdictions.

The committee’s findings will be taken up by the land use committee next week.

“There’s a broad range of concerns, but there’s also significant investment in making this ordinance better and clearer,” Councilwoman Debbie Vann said.

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