Thursday, April 26, 2007

Critical Areas

New state law puts spotlight on late report of critical areas

Times Snohomish County Bureau

The Snohomish County Council is trying to figure out what a recently passed state law means in terms of how it protects critical areas at the local level.

The Legislature has imposed a three-year moratorium blocking any agency from passing ordinances related to agriculture, a subject Snohomish County has addressed in its pending critical-areas ordinances.

The county already is out of compliance for not having finished the environmental regulations that govern how to best protect sensitive areas, such as wetlands and riverbanks, as well as how to keep development out of dangerous areas such as fault zones.

Included throughout the documents, collectively called critical areas, are county rules pertaining to agriculture, and council members are unsure how removing them will impact protection of sensitive areas.

"We had ag provisions that pretty much had been agreed to by the ag community," said Councilman Dave Somers, who has headed the discussion as chairman of the County Council's planning committee. "There's been a move around the state to put some restrictions on ag activities to protect streams and wetlands, but now this new bill has been passed."

The county was supposed to finish the new critical areas ordinances by the end of 2005. Snohomish County and others couldn't finish on time, so the Legislature granted a one-year reprieve. Now it's nearly May 2007, and Snohomish County still isn't finished, meaning it loses out on certain planning and public-works grants at the state level.

"It's been mostly an issue in public works," said county planning director Craig Ladiser. "We lost one for the work at the airport, and my department was denied one also."

The state wants each county to update its planning rules by incorporating the best available science into the process. During the past 12 years — the last time the critical-areas rules were updated — science has changed the thinking on how some areas once thought unimportant for fish and wildlife habitat are now sensitive.

Most rules regarding river buffers and major wetlands are unchanged, but also needing protection are smaller feeder streams and 1-acre wetlands.

Developers say that's slightly unfair, as many of the small, unattached wetlands have been created as the result of other development throughout the county. Environmentalists argue that the county's proposals don't go far enough to maintain a balanced ecosystem as development continues to encroach.

The council will have the final say, with the understanding that whatever it chooses likely will wind up in court.

"There's the legality of it all," Ladiser said. "So we've worked to balance what we're doing."

New rules also force extra caution around danger areas such as earthquake fault lines and channel-migration zones.

Development along each will be given additional scrutiny in the future. River channels don't stand still, which means development too close to a river channel can be at risk, especially when rivers move during flooding.

The same holds for fault zones. While development won't always be prohibited, the county must be certain that its building standards will protect something in case of an earthquake.

"Basically, the critical-areas ordinances put into writing a lot of what we're already doing," Somers said. "Developers will still be able to build in the future."

Christopher Schwarzen: 425-783-0577 or

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