Find the way to workable shoreline rules

Despite months of effort, the Bainbridge Planning Commission didn’t resolve the shoreline controversy to everyone’s satisfaction. But like the Seahawks ending a losing season on a winning streak – creating at least some hope about what lies ahead – the commission’s last-minute work does offer promise.

Controversies over shoreline regulations have centered on a proposal to require native vegetation along the shoreline, and to limit activities within that defined buffer. Opponents have bristled at the city assuming the power to regulate activities 50 feet inland – the very strip that gives shoreline land its value. Proponents counter that more stringent regulation is a small price to pay for a healthier Puget Sound.

The arguments have been partly philosophical, partly personal. Waterfront owners have overwhelmingly resisted the plans, sometimes implying that the motivating force has been economic resentment. Fans of regulation – most of whom appear to be inland dwellers – have suggested that foes are short-sighted and selfish. Economic antagonism, which tacitly animates a number of arguments on Bainbridge, bubbles troublingly close to the surface here.

And while much of the debate has been framed in terms of retaining existing vegetation when new homes are built, that’s largely an abstract question because of the lack of vacant shoreline. What will really matter are the rules that would require the owner of an existing home to install a buffer.

There was some talk that buffer-planting would be “triggered” by any permit application. To shoreline owners, that looked like bullying, with the city requiring trees simply because it had the leverage to do so. Their fears were heightened by the planning department’s requiring a buffer where a homeowner wanted to add a second story, or had to dig up a lawn to repair a bulkhead.

As the council takes up the issue, we suggest that a buffer or any other measure be required when it will mitigate the environmental impact, if any, of a project. Expanding a home towards an unstable slope might well justify planting trees on that slope to preserve stability – the problem caused by the expansion. Expanding a no-bank home might not require trees, but might add enough impervious surface to require a filtration system for runoff.

While nothing is litigation-proof, requiring buffers only as a mitigation measure tracks the standards in the state of Washington’s new shoreline guidelines, which aim at ensuring there be no net loss of shoreline ecological functions. Shoreline owners are likely to be less put-upon by requirements imposed only to compensate for their voluntary acts than those imposed where no environmental damage is shown.

A mitigation standard may not restore our shorelines, but restoration as a standard is practically difficult and legally suspect. For the sake of our community, let’s forego utopian ideals and embrace regulations we can all live with.

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