Opinion

Try to find middle ground on protection

One would think that a process based on “science”

would yield more readily objective results.

But an update of the city’s “critical areas ordinance” is proving surprisingly oblique. Citizen advocates, council members and kibitzers from the state Department of Ecology have gone round and round for most of the past year over the most effective and fairest way to protect island wetlands and streams, generally through mandated vegetative buffers of various widths.

Similar discussions have been going on across the bridge, and more notoriously in King County. The buzzword throughout has been “best available science,” the prevailing literature that is supposed to offer guidance by which to draft new regulations. Such critical areas updates are mandated by the state Growth Management Act, although each jurisdiction apparently has some latitude to craft regulations suited to that community’s needs – and, ultimately its political realities.

Nowhere is the latter point more true than in King County, where rural interests have launched a petition drive to force a referendum on new regulations many view as too burdensome. In a recent spectacle, aggrieved property owners rolled out pickups and haywagons for a procession through Seattle, to protest the very concept of the critical areas ordinance. (That jurisdiction is also wrestling with new regulations on land clearing, mercifully outside the scope of the Bainbridge ordinance update.) But while we’re not sure not sure you could still find two tractors and a haywagon on this island for a similar protest, it is impossible to ignore the growing dissatisfaction in some quarters over restrictions on long established land uses.

If polled, we think most folks would pledge their support for the protection of critical habitat as a general principle. How, then, to overcome the frequent disconnect between what we want and what we need? We think a successful land use policies will adhere to three principles.

Flexibility: Rather than being told “No” at the planning department counter, people with plans for their land need options. A “one regulation fits all” approach will rarely do

justice to the infinite variety of the natural landscape.

Site-specific guidelines will yield the best results.

Incentives: If state agencies can prod us into passing new regulations to protect critical areas, it seems reasonable that they might also offer some carrots to go with the stick. There is more than a semantic difference between “encouraging preservation” and “discouraging destruction”; a program that promotes the former would go a long way to smoothing out the objections of property rights advocates. For example, the county currently offers tax breaks for property owners who commit to leaving forested lands untouched; why not similar deal for those who happen to have wetlands and streams on their land? What incentives are being tried in other areas?

Reason: Be creative, and don’t be afraid to question the

science. It doesn’t put you in league with developers; it makes you a skeptic. Last we heard, that was a healthy reflex.

Good luck to the council, in finding a balance we can all live with. We’re confident there’s one to be found.

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