Council debates critical areas ordinance

Published on Thu, May 14, 2009
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By Tara Nelson

After a heated debate Monday, Blaine City Council postponed their vote on a critical areas ordinance revision to allow more time for public comment and review.

At issue was whether the investment of private property owners would be compromised from tighter environmental protections such as increased buffer areas surrounding wetlands and other ecologically important areas.
The new regulations would increase the standard buffer for category two wetlands from 50 feet to between 75 and 150 feet.

It would also increase the buffer for category three wetlands from 25 feet to between 50 to 100 feet. Category four wetlands, which have not been regulated by the city of Blaine, would now be buffered from development by 25 feet.
Some property owners were visibly angry and demanded council reschedule their adoption of  the ordinance. Among those that spoke included Ron Freeman who called it “the largest municipal taking in the history of this town,” and Blaine business owner Art Lawrenson.

Council member Jason Overstreet received a loud applause from a handful of audience members when he said the ordinance had potential to “wreak havoc” on private property owners and likened such developmental regulations to an infringement on Constitutional rights.

"This is not an update of our current Critical Areas Ordinance based on environmental problems or complaints, but rather a complete 38-page re-write of Blaine's Critical Areas Ordinance consisting of "entirely new language", based solely on a concept, Best Available Science, that is ill-defined and which no one understands."

Council member Harry Robinson disagreed, adding that while Overstreet objected to the document philosophically, the majority of the council had only issues with the clarity of certain sections.

“You’re looking for a totally radical approach to this and I don’t think the other council members will agree,” he said. “You’re saying you want to fight the state on this.”

Blaine community development director Terry Galvin agreed, saying the new revisions simply follow legal framework required by the state’s Growth Management Act and created more flexibility in an attempt to mitigate the impacts on property owners. “I don’t think people realize that the city staff isn’t just making this up; these are regulatory mandates from the state and ones that other municipalities have adopted,” he said.

Washington state requires cities and counties to review their development regulations every seven years as part of the GMA. That includes the revision of critical areas regulations and the requirement that counties and cities use the best available science in developing policies to protect environmentally sensitive areas.

What’s more, Galvin said, the city has updated its comprehensive plan and other regulations, but it is three years late in updating its critical areas regulations  because of a staff shortage and already-full workload.

As a result, the state has already withheld grants for road construction projects in Blaine.

New, flexible regulations

The revised regulations would increase protections such as wetland buffers, but Galvin said he and his planning staff created many variances to allow for greater flexibility for homeowners and developers as a way to compensate any financial impact the new regulations might have.

He added that because the GMA requires the new regulations to be based in the “best available science,” they will provide greater predictability and consistency in the way the regulations are interpreted. Galvin said those include the following features:

• Non-conforming development Creates a grandfather clause for developments built in critically sensitive areas to protect the landowner from future changes in development regulations.

• On-site density transfer Allows landowners to concentrate construction in one area if another portion of their property is protected in order to preserve development potential.

• Exemptions for minor additions and remodels Allows more exemptions for minor additions and remodels for homes in critical areas by up to 700 square feet.

• Revisions for buffer reductions Allows greater flexibility including a provision that allows buffers to be reduced up to 60 percent in certain areas of category three and four wetlands if the average buffer area is met.

• Regional storm water detention pond buy-ins.

The council has scheduled the public hearing for 7 p.m. Monday, June 8 at city hall.