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Buffer codes: With protection comes exception

Wetland and stream protections aren’t always cast in stone.

If buffer protections widen around island wetlands and streams, exceptions to protected areas rules are also likely to expand.

A clearer process would also be welcome, some who deal with the current regulations say.

Existing critical areas rules have thrown up a near-insurmountable wall of red-tape, said Nathan Odell, who has applied for a “reasonable use exception” on a Fort Ward property that he intends to buy.

“It’s been a nightmare,” the 26-year-old prospective homeowner said. “The amount of paperwork baffles me.”

Submitting his application in early December 2004, Odell has paid $5,000 in fees and has spent $75 to copy enough forms and documents to equal four stacked Seattle phone books, he said.

“And there’s no guarantee I’ll be able to build,” he added.

Odell is asking the city to allow a 10-foot reduction on a 25-foot buffer surrounding a wetland on the property. The buffer stymies his plan to build a home larger than the 1,200 square feet present rules allow.

Odell said he and his fiance intend to settle on the property, despite the complications that come with it, because it is one of the few parcels they can afford.

“I went to high school on the island and want to stay here,” he said. “But unless (the city) makes it easier for young people to be able to afford to stay here, we may have to move.”

He intends to hold out a little longer for his application’s approval.

“If, by this time next year, it goes through, then I’d say yeah, it’s been worth it,” he said. “It’s the only way to stay on the island.”

Bainbridge landowners can presently apply for three alterations to city-mandated “critical areas” protections.

On a case-by-case basis, the city can grant “buffer width averaging,” which allow landowners to reduce a portion of a protected area while expanding it in another area. “Buffer reductions” permit owners to cut protected zones by 50 percent.

And “Reasonable Use Excep­tions” (RUEs) allow development in areas within zones deemed critical to area habitat or water quality. If an RUE application is filed, it is referred to the city’s Wetlands Advisory Committee, which includes four members with environmental and construction expertise.

Last year, the city received 14 applications for use alterations to critical areas. Six were approved, while eight are still being processed.

The City Council is currently studying proposed changes to the city’s Critical Areas Ordinance, governing development around streams and wetlands (see related story, page A8). Among the considerations are how to treat exceptions to whatever new rules are adopted.

The city has proposed cutting buffer width reductions from 50 percent to 25 percent, but adding a variance that allows reductions ranging from 25 to 100 percent.

The variance would require a less-complicated approval process than the RUE, according to city planners.

Gary Tripp, of Bainbridge Citizens United, said the new variance process would ease some of the complications landowners face when attempting to alter their property.

“If the variance is approved, it would reduce the paperwork and the burden of having to apply for an RUE,” the property rights advocate said.

‘Flexibility’

Geoff Daigle applied for an RUE in December 2004 for a home near a wetland on Eagle Harbor Drive.

While finding the process cumbersome, Daigle said flexibility with his plans eased the process.

“Overall, there was a big learning curve for me in the application,” he said of the six-month process. “But the folks at planning were very easy to work with. They asked me to combine my garage under the house, which worked with my plans.”

Michael Pollock also opted to change his development plans after confronting the complexities of altering setbacks around a wetland buffer on his Crystal Springs Drive property.

After applying for a five-foot reduction in the setback around the wetland buffer on his land, the former City Council member eventually opted to shrink his planned residence by five feet.

“And that’s fine,” he said. “Not a ton of heartburn, really. The city said I could build a smaller house, and they were right.”

Pollock said he supports wetland buffers, but wishes city regulations were more flexible for single-residence developments.

“It’s the big projects that are really having the largest impact,” on the environment, he said. “That’s really where these regulations should have fangs. There should be more flexibility for the little guy.”

Tripp said the city should not only be more flexible, but should financially compensate landowners for portions of property it restricts.

“If society wants open space it should pay for the private property it takes away,” he said. “It’s a general principle of law.”

Cara Cruickshank, of the Bainbridge Island Watershed Council, said buffers are “absolutely vital” for island habitat and water quality.

“Without buffers, people could build right up to a wetland,” she said. “Where would the frogs, the newts and ducks and other critters go?”

Cruickshank added that adjacent developments send pesticides, herbicides and other runoff directly into wetlands and streams, making them uninhabitable for fish and other aquatic life.

She would like to see tougher criteria for buffer reductions and more aggressive enforcement of protection rules included in the city’s update of the critical areas ordinance.

Gale Cool, who sought an RUE early last year for a Point White Drive parcel, strongly supports improving the island’s environmental health, but feels regulation is largely not the answer. He believes the city should be doing more to provide incentives for landowners to voluntarily protect habitat and water quality.

“Taking over our neighbor’s land seems attractive, but it’s only blame-shifting,” he said. “The real blame (for environmental degradation) is on everyone who has built or uses a hard surface. Lawns, houses, parking lots, bulkheads have impacts, but we externalize these costs.”

Cool advocates awarding landowners the density credits associated with a wetland or buffer zones for use in other areas.

“We don’t have the tools in our code to promote or tolerate landowners’ cooperative improvements for wetlands,” he said. “That’s clumsy and adversarial and it needs to change.”

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