The Aquifer Recharge Protection Area (ARPA) in the city’s new Critical Area Ordinance recently survived in a seriously flawed Growth Management Hearings Board decision.
The ARPA requirement is a relatively draconian land-use regulation that requires new development of over 800 square feet of hard surface for half acre or larger zoned parcels to retain up to 65 percent of native vegetation under the deception by both city staff and city council’s that the purpose is aquifer protection. That’s simply false … it’s a cleverly disguised tree retention ordinance.
The city council pulled off this deception by initially forming a tree ad-hoc committee with three city council and two like minded Planning Commission members. Nothing wrong with trying to protect island trees — the city had been trying to do that for years.
By January 2017, the city was required to implement Ecology’s rules on low impact development, which is a statewide program to retain 91 percent of surface stormwater on a parcel. Ecology’s WSU stormwater research center developed engineering solutions, primarily soil amendments, to keep the rainwater on site and in theory, reduce stormwater pollution to receiving waters.
The city council renamed the tree ad-hoc committee to the tree and low impact development ad-hoc committee. They didn’t want to use Ecology’s engineered solutions to retain stormwater, primarily amending soils and using rain gardens.
City planning staff cherry-picked a drainage basin passage from the Western Washington Stormwater Manual that set 65 percent as a big picture planning goal for entire drainage basins to remain in native vegetation, and they arbitrarily translated that to individual parcels, ignoring large acreages of public lands such as parks and open spaces.
Can anyone imagine if Ecology went to the state Legislature and said 65 percent of parcels over half an acre will need to be retained as native vegetation in perpetuity to reduce stormwater pollution? That would have been laughed out of Olympia by both parties.
Add to this clever maneuver the city’s sole source aquifer designation. The GMHB made a major issue of that federal designation, but unbelievably failed to recognize that it’s a federal designation that applies only to federal funded projects, requiring them to undergo additional environmental reviews to ensure our five aquifers are not degraded. The sole source aquifer designation has nothing legal at all to do with private development. That’s an almost unimaginable key legal ruling by what should be, but apparently lacking, sole source aquifer program scope by GMHB ruling members.
City said and GMHB confirmed use of best available. What a failure of elementary hydrology science.
Conifer forests, which are primarily what exists in native vegetation on Bainbridge Island, absorb about 70 percent of rainfall. Trees are thirsty with both basic cellular water needs and leaf/needle transpiration. Cleared agricultural farm land, or grassed parks, allow far more water into the aquifers than native forests. So when the city claims the new rules protect water quantity — yet another stunningly inaccurate public statement.
The other aquifer concern besides water quantity is pollution, and the city has had Critical Areas Ordinance rules for many years to protect aquifers from pollution. And they are working quite well since they have been implemented.
The fact is the best available science hydrology model, using highly precautionary assumptions, shows sufficient Bainbridge Island groundwater availability for the next 100 years, even if the population more than doubles. Island aquifers and some 70-plus wells are frequently monitored for any early warning signs of water quantity problems. Since current groundwater penetration below the vegetative root zone is about six times the current aquifers pumpage quantity, saltwater intrusion is not foreseen.
Aquifer protection is simply not the goal of the Aquifer Recharge Protection Area. It should be renamed Tree Retention Protection Area because that’s what the city staff and city council are in fact are trying to protect.
If you don’t own an affected property, it’s likely looked on as a good, albeit deceptive, piece of legislation.
But If you own more than a half acre, it’s another onerous layer of local government requiring a site evaluation, relatively arbitrary development envelopes, an in perpetuity legal filing that requires a city planning staff pre-approval, hiring technical experts, and all that makes for simply more expensive housing and higher government costs for administration and the inevitable litigation that almost certain to follow.
Finally, tree protections other than on steep slopes and in wetlands and stream buffers are not a critical areas ordinance matter.
But the GMHB can only rule on what is in the submitted records, and that was a legal deception for the main contested (ARPA) issue.
So the city wins a legal deception case — not sure I’d call that a real win for Bainbridge Island citizens.
Robert Dashiell is a long-time Bainbridge Island resident with a Navy Inspector General fraud, waste and abuse investigative background who has watchdogged the city of Bainbridge Island for more than a decade uncovering wasteful spending and questionable city political practices.