Critical areas update requires balancing quality-of-life goals

  • By Jim Potter
  • Friday, June 16, 2006 9:00pm
  • Opinion

After more than a year, Snohomish County’s draft Critical Areas Regulations update is now out for public review. Few would argue with the need to protect Snohomish County’s critical areas, such as habitat for fish and wildlife, wetlands and “aquifer recharge areas,” which are important for replenishing groundwater supplies. Nor would many argue with the importance of preventing sprawling development and protecting the environment in our rural areas for future generations to enjoy.

The challenge, which is at the heart of this critical areas update, is figuring out how to do both at the same time.

One of the ways in which local jurisdictions currently seek to protect critical areas, particularly wetlands, inside urban growth areas is to create no-build buffers around them. These buffers are intended to improve water quality and provide other environmental benefits. However, some argue the county should impose larger buffers, believing they would provide even greater benefits. The problem is, the more land that is used for buffers in our urban areas, the less space is available to accommodate our growing population. In this way, larger buffers jeopardize the state Growth Management Act’s goal of directing growth to our urban areas.

State forecasters tell us approximately 300,000 new residents will live in Snohomish County in the next 20 years. Given this reality, we have a responsibility to provide adequate housing to accommodate this growth and to take other necessary measures to protect our quality of life. In looking at buffer sizes, we have to decide, do we want to build in already urbanized areas, or in rural areas the GMA is meant to protect?

The key, as with any other growth management debate, is striking an appropriate balance between conflicting goals. Protecting our environmental assets, as the critical areas update seeks to do, should be done in a thoughtful manner and does not have to come at the expense of our local economy or other quality-of-life measures.

In order to achieve the best balance possible, the county needs to consider scientific research based on local conditions as well as the success of existing regulations.

The Growth Management Act requires local jurisdictions to review their critical areas regulations and update them, if necessary, based on “best available science.” However, much of the state Department of Ecology’s science, which the department has imposed on local jurisdictions during this update process, is incomplete. It is based on conditions in other states and countries. These areas simply do not have the stringent stormwater and water quality rules or forest practices in place that we do here in Snohomish County. These areas are more degraded than our pristine environment here, and they simply do not accurately reflect our local conditions. How can the results of those studies be used to justify imposing larger buffers in Snohomish County?

As the update process moves forward, the county should consider more local scientific research that accounts for environmental protections in place under our existing regulations.

Flexibility is another key element of this effort. The new regulations should have built-in flexibility allowing property owners to repair or restore already degraded areas.

At the same time, local jurisdictions must consider and implement other Growth Management Act (GMA) goals. Just as it is important to preserve Snohomish County’s environment, it is equally important that the county directs growth to urban areas, provides adequate housing for its residents, promotes economic development and preserves our rural and forestlands. The importance of balancing these and other GMA goals cannot be overlooked.

The building community has a responsibility to protect the functions and values of wetlands. Going beyond this standard inside urban areas, however, forces us to make difficult choices.

That is why it is vitally important that we take a thoughtful, balanced approach to updating the county’s critical areas regulations. A variety of goals important to our county and region are at stake.

Jim Potter of Kauri Investments in Seattle is the 2006 president of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties.

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