Habitat Conservation Areas (HCA), (also referred as Fish and Wildlife Habitat Conservation Areas FWHCA), are one of the 5 types of critical areas that are protected under the Critical Area Ordinance mandated by the Growth Management Act. I am now on my third go-around reviewing these provisions.. (1) the citizen advisory committee on the CAO, (2) following the planning commission review and (3) now as part of the Wildlife Advisory Committee.
I am convinced that these provisions do not protect our wildlife and habitat, except for perhaps the fish. Significant revisions are necessary if we are to have any wildlife in the future. What specifically are the problems and the changes needed?
“The existing provisions of WCC 16.16 Article VII include relatively broad performance standards with few prescriptive requirements. Many of the regulatory standards in WCC 16.16.720 and 730 give considerable discretion to staff, which allows flexibility during the development review process but may result in insufficient or inconsistent management approaches.
The challenge of interpreting some of the existing regulations may be exacerbated by gaps in the code, namely the lack of specific buffer standards for habitat types other than streams and rivers; lack of specific mitigation requirements to compensate for adverse effects on species or habitats; and lack of specificity as to how effects on species and habitats are to be measured, reported and/or monitored.
The County may improve protection and management of FWHCAs [Fish and Wildlife Habitat Conservation Areas] by adding prescriptive standards that address the size, amount, location, configuration, and other habitat characteristics that are needed to maintain populations of target species in Whatcom County.”
That quote was from the analysis reflected in a 2005 Best Avaiable Science Report from a reputable consultant analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the county’s new drafted CAO. Little was changed, and here we are today. And in case you have not read too many consultant reports, that is rather a blunt asessment by someone that you are paying to help you look compliant with the GMA.
I will rephrase the assessment in terms that are more accessible. The county has failed to provide a baseline standard of wildlife and habitat, nor created any means by which to measure and monitor any changes in ecological function. There are few standards to protect wildlife that are quantifiable and objective. Instead things are left up to the planning staff, who are provided personal discretion to make decisions as they see fit, without any guidelines or standards. Even buffers, unless connected to streams and rivers, are left undefined. The county even lacks clear mitigation requirements on how to compensate for any impacts that are permitted. What is not stated directly, but is implied, is that the county has failed to make its regulations on the basis of best available science, a specific CAO requirement intended to protect against a net loss of function and value in the ecoystem in which the critical area is located.
But wait.. there is more. Things have gotten worse since then. There are three categories of species and habitat that are protected.. Endangered Species/habitat Act provisions under federal law, priority species and habitat under state law and species/habitat of local importance.
The county is now aggressively trying to eliminate protection for local species and habitat. First, they tried to remove all local species, even when a valid basis was reflected in the 2005 BAS Report (this was NOT approved by the planning commission and the species remained on the list), then by removing the name of the local species and habitat from the code and making it available on a list that would be retained by the planning department. There is a test to nominate new local species and habitat, but it is so onerous that that the county itself would not be able to succeed. Morever, it is excessive in comparison to the legal test for designating a local species or habitat., which is simply any species or habitat of importance to our community.
In theory, the CAO should be revised as part of coordinated and comprehensive comp. plan review because the CAO are the regulations that implement the policies of the comp. plan. But both the city and county have piecemealed this planning process. So after you have drafted your comp. plan comments (and please do), do not put your pens to rest just yet. There is still the CAO update looming.