Hearings board to make decision on CAO appeal

Published on Wed, Mar 17, 2010 by Tara Nelson

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The Washington State Growth Management Hearings Board is moving closer to making a final determination on an environmental group’s appeal of the city of Blaine’s wetland buffer.

The Bellingham-based non-profit environmental group RE Sources filed an appeal last October against the city following Blaine City Council’s approval of its critical areas ordinance. The group claims the city’s critical areas ordinance does not meet minimum wetland setback requirements based on “best available science” as dictated in the state’s growth management act (GMA) and enforced by the Washington state Department of Ecology (DOE).
The board is scheduled to make a final determination by March 29.

Blaine planning director Michael Jones said he wasn’t sure what kind of decision to expect but that the arguments basically come down to how one interprets “best available science.”

“(RE Sources) would like to see larger wetland buffers because they’re looking at this through statistics that apply to universal scenarios,” he said. “Our ordinance is set up to establish modest buffers and to expand or modify those buffers based on the real known impacts of a particular project.”

Blaine city manager Gary Tomsic said that decision could be postponed. The board asked for more time for review after learning the state legislature is considering a bill to combine the critical areas ordinance and the shoreline management act under the state’s growth management act.

“That would affect things for the city of Blaine because we don’t have a shoreline management plan yet,” he said.
The CAO increases the standard buffer for category two wetlands from 50 feet to between 75 and 150 feet and increases the buffer for category three wetlands from 25 feet to between 50 and 100 feet. Category four wetlands, which have not been regulated by the city of Blaine, will now be buffered from development by 25 feet.

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.

In a June city council meeting, RE Sources executive Wendy Steffenson called the ordinance “alarming” and urged city officials to review their priorities. She added the numbers put forth in the original ordinance were already insufficient to protect the value and function of wetlands.

“It’s not easy to recreate what nature has made,” she said.

In a separate letter, Steffenson said more generous wetland protections are necessary to protect the health of Drayton Harbor, which is “already degraded as evidenced by its listing on the DOE’s 303(d) list.”

The letter goes on to read, “Given the importance of wetlands to the pollution removal, stormwater retention, aquifer recharge, and habitat, it is disturbing to see that the city of Blaine has chosen to add so much flexibility to the regulations at the expense of the resources.”

The DOE has also expressed dissatisfaction with the new regulations. In a letter dated July 27, DOE officials said while they understand the need to balance environmental protections with pressures faced by small governments to increase the local tax base, they are disappointed their previous suggestions were disregarded.

Another letter from the DOE dated June 8 also read that the ordinance would allow overly intensive land uses adjacent to wetlands, inadequate buffer widths and protection. In addition, the reductions allowed would increase the risk of degradation to the city’s remaining wetlands.

The critical areas ordinance hearing can be heard by visiting www.cityofblaine.com and searching for “CAO.”