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Shoreline plan could limit size of docks

The docks and shoreline areas around Mercer Island will come under new regulations as the Shoreline Master Plan is completed by the city. - Chad Coleman/Staff Photo
The docks and shoreline areas around Mercer Island will come under new regulations as the Shoreline Master Plan is completed by the city.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Staff Photo

Islanders take their shoreline seriously. They swim, boat and fish from the shore, lounge along the Island’s beaches, and enjoy picturesque views of Lake Washington and the city.

The Mercer Island Planning Commission is nearly finished with an extensive document that outlines and regulates how the shoreline can be used and, more importantly, preserved. However, the Department of Ecology opposes the details in several key Commission recommendations.

Fifteen months of planning, 17 meetings and countless hours of discussion later, the Shoreline Master Program (SMP) is one step closer to completion, although exactly when it will be done is still in question.

Mercer Island has already received one extension — which is soon set to expire — to complete the SMP. City officials are in the process of requesting a second extension.

In response to Commissioner Bryan Cairns’ concern over how long the project will continue to run, City Planner Travis Saunders said the Commission will likely continue to work on the program “through the summer months” before it will go to the Department of Ecology for an informal review that will take four to six weeks to complete.

First, the Commission must confer with the Department of Ecology on its concerns over their recommendations for vegetation buffers and dock sizes.

There is no size limit on dock size in the current SMP; however, the Commission will recommend a maximum size of 1,000 square feet.

Barbara Nightingale, a regional shoreline planner for the Department of Ecology, said the proposed size is simply too big.

“We’re just not going to support 1,000-foot docks, point blank,” she said in an interview.

Nightingale said the city should follow the recommendations of the Army Corps of Engineers, which call for a 480-square-foot limit to single family docks. The average single family dock size on Mercer Island is currently 785 square feet, and the largest dock is at Luther Burbank Park, which measures 6,272 square feet, according to city data.

There are about 47 docks per mile around the Island, Saunders said in an interview after the meeting.

That means there are almost 700 docks along Mercer Island’s shoreline.

Nightingale also takes issue with the Commission’s vegetation setback recommendations.

In a letter to the Commissioners, she wrote, “Ecology recommends that the code language clarify that the vegetated cover should not be limited to one small area or corner of the lot; rather, it is intended to be extended across the face of the lot adjacent to the ordinary high water mark.”

Other key recommendations apply to docks, bulkheads and environmental designations.

All new docks must be constructed with grated decking, under the revised recommendations. The newer style is considered more “ecologically friendly” and allows more light to filter through the deck surface, although it’s approximately two and a half times the cost of using traditional materials, Saunders said.

New bulkheads will still be permitted under the revised SMP, but property owners must “demonstrate need” with a geotechnical analysis that meets mandatory requirements set by the Department of Ecology.

Lastly, the Commission recommends two designations, “urban residential and urban parks,” instead of the three current shoreline environment designations: urban residential, conservancy and parks.

The change will place Luther Burbank Park into the “urban park” category, although it will not alter the amount of conservancy protection at the park, Saunders said.

The biggest issue left on the table is what to do with existing docks and landscaping that do no follow the new guidelines. These outliers are referred to as “nonconformities.”

“Generally speaking, existing docks and landscaping will be allowed to continue unaltered and will be permitted to be repaired and maintained,” Saunders said. “The Commission has not yet fully addressed the issue of nonconformities, so specifics as to if and when existing docks and landscaping would have to be brought into compliance with current standards remains to be considered.”

After the Commissioners iron out the remaining bumps, the program will go to the City Council, then back to the Department of Ecology for a final review and approval, a six- to 12-month process.

Under the current progression, the program may go before the City Council by the end of the year.

The SMP will affect the 14.7 miles of Mercer Island shoreline and waterfront property owners’ ability to develop areas along the water’s edge.

The SMP is nothing new. In 1971 the legislation passed the Shoreline Management Act to manage future use and development of Washington state’s shorelines.

In 1974 Mercer Island adopted its first SMP to manage the city’s 14.7 miles of shoreline. Almost 30 years later, a settlement between the state and private businesses, ports, environmental groups, the Department of Ecology, cities and counties, among other parties, the state of Washington produced a set of regulations to address specific requirements for local SMPs in 2003.

In May 2009 the City Council and Planning Commission held a joint study session to kick off the SMP update. Between now and then, the Commission and city staff have combed through the regulations that will govern the Island’s shoreline for years to come.

Shoreline plan

• First adopted by the city in 1974, as required by the Shoreline Management Act.

• Currently no limit on dock sizes for Island residents, but Commission recommends a maximum of 1,000 square feet.

• There are 47 docks per mile around the Island.

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