Slippery slopes, new rules for `critical areas"

By Ruth Longoria

The City Council, at its Nov. 21 meeting, approved a new Critical Areas Ordinance for the Island with a vote of six-to-one. Councilman Dan Grausz was the lone vote opposing the new ordinance. But Grausz wasn't the only one at the meeting in opposition to something about the ordinance.

It's an ordinance some considered too streamlined and others considered too broad. This despite months of refining by the planning commission, several public meetings, and discussions by the Council. And though a few councilmembers attempted to attach various amendments to the ordinance with councilman Jim Pearman not in attendance to break each three-to-three tie during the votes, all but one amendment to the ordinance failed. And the ordinance -- as approved by city staff and the Council -- lived on.

The new ordinance is controversial in part because Islanders can't agree on how much detail should be within the document. But, some say, despite winnowing the planning commission's prior 50 page draft to what's now about two dozen pages, not much has changed, according to city staff.

``This ordinance is very similar to what's been on the books for 20 or 30 years,'' said Londi Lindell, city attorney.

The Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) is a statute that regulates what can be done in and around areas such as watercourses, geologic hazard areas, wetlands and wildlife habitat conservation areas. According to the state Growth Management Act, each city or county government is required to create and regularly update its CAO, which designates and protects critical areas. The ordinance is aimed at preventing possible hazards such as flooding and landslides, and protecting natural resources, wildlife and water quality.

With about 62-percent of the Island considered to be a critical area, it could be expected that the CAO would apply to most of the Island. It doesn't. And, with the Island surrounded by water, it might be surmised that the buffer zones around the Island's waterways would be more stringently imposed than that of other cities, where water is less abundant. It isn't.

During the public comment portion of the Council meeting, before the vote, several Islanders stood up to ask the Council to consider strengthening its new Critical Areas Ordinance.

The new ordinance is ``the most streamlined in the state -- Bellevue, Medina and Issaquah are all stronger,'' said Sue Stewart, who spoke on behalf of the Friends of Luther Burbank Park. ``We worry that much of Luther Burbank (Park) might not fall within the ordinance.''

It doesn't. The CAO isn't overly concerned with land within Luther Burbank Park. ``It does not specifically impact Luther Burbank Park any more than any other park on the Island,'' Lindell said. One reason, is that the ordinance doesn't include shoreline management issues. ``We have until 2007 to look at shoreline management,'' she added.

The Island's ordinance is different from that of other area ordinances partially because some water and wildlife issues affecting nearby cities don't necessarily affect the Island. ``You're unique -- streams on the Island aren't salmon-bearing,'' Lindell told residents. ``Because of the rocks, salmon couldn't get up there if they wanted to.''

One revision to the new ordinance, at issue for some, is the decision that city utility projects do not have to be reviewed by the planning commission as must be done by private projects in areas deemed critical. In the past year, 12 of the 16 city utility projects were done without planning commission input, or approval, in order to save time and money, since the projects were not considered ``big'' projects. Those projects were approved by the City Council, as all new projects would be, but that isn't enough for some residents who spoke at the public input portion of the meeting, or for Councilman Grausz. ``No one is above the law, including local government,'' Grausz said.

But city staff and other councilmembers saw it differently. ``I'm trying to understand where the problem is,'' said Councilman Steve Litzow. ``We've had 16 projects in the past year and we've had no problems.''

According to the new ordinance, if residents have an issue with specific city utility projects, they can still appeal to the planning commission.

The ordinance has since been sent on to the state level for approval to ensure it meets GMA requirements, Lindell said. ``We do want to fully protect the environment,'' she said. ``And I think this ordinance does that.''

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