Split council widens buffers around streams

Council nears home stretch of Critical Areas Ordinance update.

The City Council this week agreed to triple buffers around fish-bearing streams, in a vote marking one of the most significant new protections proposed for the city’s Critical Areas Ordinance.

“We have only a few of these streams left on the island,” said Councilwoman Christine Rolfes. “Let’s give them the protections they need.”

The changes, proposed by Councilman Bill Knobloch, would boost buffer requirements from the current 50 feet around fish-bearing streams to 150 feet.

The proposed new buffers are composed of two parts: the first 100 feet are aimed at protecting water quality. The additional 50 feet are geared for preserving wildlife habitat, but can be altered or reduced through a land use variance.

The vote was close, passing 4-3, with a range of counterproposals by councilors who hoped to gain more flexibility for landowners.

Councilman Nezam Tooloee failed to draw enough support for a proposed 50-foot water quality buffer and a 100-foot habitat buffer.

“Water quality buffers are nearly impossible to pierce” due to stronger limits on exceptions, Tooloee said.

A proposal by Councilman Bob Scales to set both buffer types at 75 feet also failed.

The draft ordinance will go before the public again in a public hearing next Wednesday.

City planner Libby Hudson said the changes approved by the council this week are some of the most important to come out of a lengthy update of the ordinance.

“Buffer widths around streams was always going to be a big one for the CAO,” Hudson said. “The science showed we needed it larger.”

But some councilors say that depends on whose science you’re looking at.

“I’m not going to support this,” said Tooloee, explaining his ‘no’ vote on the approved buffer changes. “It’s not based on (state) Department of Ecology studies.”

At Monday’s meeting, Tooloee and Scales repeatedly expressed their preference for DOE guidelines, which set water quality buffers as low as 50 feet for some streams.

“I hang my hat on the DOE science for water quality,” said Tooloee, who considers the government agency’s data more rigorous than other studies cited by councilors.

He took particular aim at a recent study commissioned by the council itself. The study, conducted by Herrera Environ­mental Consultants, recommended much larger buffer protections for streams and wetlands.

“The (Herrera) report was underwhelming at best” and had “nothing compelling about it,” Tooloee said.

Most on the council saw the report’s call for 447-foot wildlife habitat buffers as excessive, especially in populated areas, but others held the report as a benchmark for policy-making.

Rolfes, who supported some of the Herrera report’s recommendations, compared the council’s disagreements over “Best Available Science” to the international debate over global climate change.

“It’s pretty clear that we’re not going to agree with what science to go with,” she said.

But the council did find one more area of agreement.

With a 5-2 vote, the council approved 40-foot water quality buffers and 10-foot wildlife buffers around non-fish-bearing streams, for a total protection of 50 feet.

An earlier proposal by Knobloch for 50-foot water quality buffers failed, as did a proposal by Scales for 35-foot water quality and 15-foot wildlife buffers.

Rolfes said streams without fish also need strong protections.

“A stream that flows all year long means that the ground water is near the surface and is a significant contributor to water quality in Puget Sound,” she said.

* * * * *

Critical mass

The City Council will hold the final public hearing on the revised Critical Areas Ordinance at 7 p.m. Dec. 7 at City Hall. The CAO regulates land use near wetlands, streams, wildlife habitats and other sensitive areas. The state Growth Management Act requires that cities use up-to-date “best available science” in CAO updates.

Major proposed changes to the city’s CAO include new buffer sizes for sensitive areas, a greater emphasis on water quality, more human-use options within wetlands, alternatives to buffers allowing landowners more development flexibility and new requirements for construction on steep slopes.

Information: 842-2552.

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