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Critical areas regulations revised Law affects wetlands and steep slopes

By Ruth Longoria' email='Ruth.Longoria@mi-reporter.com

A streamlined version of the city's Critical Areas Ordinance is slowly paddling upstream as it makes its way through the Planning Commission, public meetings and eventually back to the City Council. The public had its first opportunity at the Planning Commission meeting last Wednesday night to speak out on the 15-page ordinance, which was sent as a 40-page document from the council to city staff last fall. Back then, staff was asked to cut back on some of the redundancy in the ordinance and make it more understandable and reader-friendly. "This is 40-percent shorter than it was and, I believe, is the most concise critical areas ordinance in the state," said Gabe Snedeker, the city's principal planner.

Only two residents showed up at the commission meeting, and City Councilmember Dan Grausz was the only one to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting. Grausz, who told the commission he was speaking as a private citizen and not a councilmember, expressed dismay about elements of the document and urged the commission to spend some time before passing it on to the council.

"This thing was gutted," Grausz said of the ordinance, prior to the meeting. However, speaking as a councilman, he praised city staff for their efforts on what had been a "lengthy draft." "In my liaison function, I want to echo (staff) and say this is an improvement," Grausz said. "There was a feeling of some people on the council that it was too long and needed to be streamlined." Cities and counties are required to have a Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) in place as part of the Growth Management Act (GMA). The GMA was adopted because "the Washington State Legislature found that uncoordinated and unplanned growth posed a threat to the environment, sustainable economic development, and the quality of life in Washington," according to the state Access Washington Web site. The GMA, was adopted by the Legislature in 1990. In 1991 the GMA was amended to create the Growth Management Hearings Boards to hear and determine allegations of non-compliance with the GMA. The CAO, which is an element of the GMA, identifies, designates and sets forth how the governing body deals with and protects wetland areas, floodplains, and steep slopes within a jurisdiction. The 40-page document that the Island's Planning Commission passed on to the City Council last fall was an attempt to meet a previous Dec. 31, 2004, deadline for the CAO; however, the state legislature has since granted a one-year extension, so the final draft of the ordinance must now be passed by Dec. 31, 2005. The next CAO would be completed in seven years. In order to shorten the 40-page document and create a more easily understandable ordinance, City Attorney Londi Lindell worked with other staff members to develop a different format for the ordinance, and add a definitions portion to make for less redundancy. Some words, sentences, and in one case an entire paragraph, were deleted. However, staff assured the commission that wording of the draft did not take away the teeth of the ordinance.

Some members of the Planning Commission staff were concerned that the deletion of specific details may cause the state to consider legal action against Mercer island, as has been done in other sections of the state. Lindell said she hopes concerns about legalities in the ordinance aren't a consideration for commission members as they consider the details of the ordinance. Instead, they should be concerned with delivering a streamlined ordinance, she said.

The commission took no action on the ordinance Wednesday night, but spent several hours debating terminology and asked staff to bring back information to its Sept. 7 meeting about the wetland rating classification system and what, if any, exemptions would be allowed for city street and utility projects.

Sidebar: Critical Areas Ordinance Residents are encouraged to provide input about the Critical Areas Ordinance at the next Planning Commission meeting at 7:30 p.m., Sept. 7, in the Council Chambers at City Hall, 9611 S.E. 36th St. Comments also can be submitted to the Development Services Department at: mi-dsg@ci.mercer-island.wa.us.

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