Mercer Island starts critical areas review

The update process is expected to be lengthy, concluding in March 2019.

Ellis Pond is one of Mercer Island’s critical areas. The city’s critical areas code and shoreline master program are due for a review. Photo courtesy of the city of Mercer Island

Ellis Pond is one of Mercer Island’s critical areas. The city’s critical areas code and shoreline master program are due for a review. Photo courtesy of the city of Mercer Island

Mercer Island will soon start to review its regulations for wetlands, streams and other critical areas, along with shorelines, after the City Council and Planning Commission discussed first steps for two code updates at a joint meeting on May 22.

In February 2018, the council approved the proposed scope of work for an update to the Critical Areas Code (CAO) and the Shoreline Master Program (SMP). The critical areas code was last reviewed in 2005, while the shoreline plan was last adopted in 2015.

Critical areas are “essential to preserving our natural environment and protecting the public’s health and safety,” as identified in the Growth Management Act (GMA). They include geologically hazardous areas, such as landslide, erosion and seismic hazards, along with watercourses, wildlife habitat conservation areas, wetlands and critical aquifer recharge areas (CARAs).

The city’s SMP contains regulations pertaining to the shoreline jurisdiction, which on Mercer Island encompasses lands within 200 feet of the shoreline of Lake Washington. The new regulations may affect waterfront property owners, and alterations to docks, bulkheads, setbacks from the shoreline and the placement of structures near the Lake.

Both plans are mandated by state law — by the GMA and Washington State Shoreline Management Act — and required to be updated periodically, at least every eight years.

“The review ensures the Critical Areas Code and SMP stay current with changes in laws and rules, remains consistent with other City of Mercer Island plans and regulations, and is responsive to changed circumstances, new information and improved data,” according to the meeting agenda bill.

The update process is expected to be lengthy, concluding in March of next year, and involve a lot of public comment.

“I would expect that we’re going to see many, many, many different types of changes in our regulations with the code amendments,” said Planning Manager Evan Maxim.

The process will be similar to last year’s residential code update, with the Planning Commission reviewing the amendments and making a recommendation to the council. They held a joint meeting to meet the consultants on the project, share baseline knowledge and open the lines of communication on the proposed approach to the process.

Before the meeting, city staff and Planning Commission had already reviewed the regulatory context of both updates and retained consultants — ESA and Aspect Consulting — to assist in the preparation of technical material.

Being an Island, Mercer Island has a lot of critical areas, including steep slopes and shoreline. Some have already been mapped, like erosion and landslide hazards, while other need more data, like wetlands. The city’s current critical areas code does not include CARA standards.

The GMA requires the critical areas code to be informed by “best available science” (BAS). After the joint meeting, the next steps are to gather the BAS and consider it in context of Mercer Island conditions and policy priorities, while also looking at update options from neighboring jurisdictions.

After the BAS report and gap analysis of existing standards are completed, the Planning Commission will start its review, scheduled for Aug. 1 to Nov. 20. A recommendation to the council is expected in December. The council is set to review the updates in January and February, and adopt them in March 2019.

Through the process, Mercer Island will hone in on spots where the latest best available science suggests an update, and determine if the level of protection in current codes is high enough for the city and community.

Currently, the city protects critical areas by prohibiting, limiting, and/or allowing certain activities; requiring buffers or setbacks around sensitive areas; and requiring a step-wise approach (i.e., mitigation sequencing) to project impacts during design.

During the public outreach process, the city will ask Islanders which aspects or qualities of regulations are most important to them (i.e., environmental protection, flexibility for development, safety, simplicity of standards, etc.) and what the city’s goals should be for environmental protection.

Residents can see the city’s webpage at www.mercergov.org/CriticalAreas for more information, or share their thoughts by emailing caoupdate@mercergov.org

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