April 9, 2017 Wendy Harris
While the county continues to seek state legislative fixes to the Hirst decision, and at all costs avoid its obligation to actually plan, the county is still under a court imposed obligation to come into compliance with the GMA, and protect rural water quality and quantity. (Yes, somehow with all the hysterical theatrics that surrounds this decision, it is easy to forget that it is, after all, a GMA compliance case).
In response, the planning staff drafted a proposal and presented it to the county planning commission. The proposal required a cumulative limit on impervious surface allowed on lots in the rural and rural residential zones. Currently, these limits exist only in a few impaired watersheds, such as Lake Whatcom. Impervious surface is connected to degradation of clean water, and it one of the key elements of a solution to protect water quality and quantity. Could the proposal have been stronger and better drafted? Yes, but it was headed in the right direction for a change.
Then the proposal went to the Planning Commission and derailed. After input by the public and the commissioners, the staff went back and drafted an alternative plan and a public hearing was held. The new plan increased the square footage standards, and moved the standards to the storm water requirements in WCC 20.80.630 where they would act as a threshold for requiring use of the state storm water manual, rather than a cap on impervious surfaces. If you are confused, that is because these are completely different things…. impervious surface limits and storm water standards. Guess which one is much more effective?
But wait, the PC was not done with its ‘improvements” to this plan. Because the storm water requirements apply countywide, there were concerns, from the audience and the PC commissioners, that this could have impacts on agriculture and of course we can not have that. So there will be a new hearing before the PC on April 27 regarding which of several options to adopt:
Option 1: Return to original proposal of applying the requirements to the R and RR zones only.
Option 2: Replace the 45,000 square foot threshold for all parcels over three acres with a threshold that increases based on a percentage of the parcel size.
Option 3: Exempt agricultural uses where storm water is managed through a farm plan. (And therefore, the terms adopted will all be kept secret from us!)
Option 4: Exempt all parcels over 20 acres.
Before the PC hearing, this will be discussed at the Agricultural Advisory Board meeting on April 12th.
Here are a few facts that the PC and the ag. community appear to be overlooking. First, the greatest impacts to water quality and quantity in the rural zone occurs through agricultural activities, which suggests that Ag. requires more restriction, not less than what is imposed generally. (And while I am sure arguments will be made that urban development has the greatest impact on water quality and quantity, which is true, that is not relevant here because the Hirst case, and the compliance order, only involve the rural area.)
Next, after just completing its review of the CAO update last year, the PC and the Ag. community should understand that if you are talking about storm water run off in the rural zone, you are talking about critical area impacts to things such as critical aquifer recharge areas, wetlands, and fish and wildlife habitat, all of which require protection of the functions and values of critical areas and the ecosystems in which they are located under a no net loss standard that is determined through review of best available science.
This is why our CAO does not work. We should be developing policies that protect critical areas and ecosystems that we know will be impacted from the initial planning stage, not as an afterthought that we attempt to justify through some inaccurate and vague SEPA checklist that results in an almost automatic Determination of Nonsignificance.
That means we do not pull numbers and percentages for impervious surface allowance or triggers for storm water protection out of the blue, but we refer to studies to determine what is needed for adequate protection under a net no loss of functions and values standard. And yes, this is higher than any other standards that apply to development, but it is clearly and desperately needed given the on-going state of our declining watersheds. Will it cost more? Yes. But whatever the cost of continuing to have a planet to inhabit is a good deal to me.
We know that when more than 10% of a watershed is impervious, there are ecosystem impacts that can be permanent and irreparable. For example, the mortality rate for fish increase, even when the development creating impervious surfaces is located a distance away in the watershed. This is the kind of discussion and the science that the PC and the ag. advisory board need to be considering. Rarely, if ever, do I hear the PC, the staff, or any advisory board discuss or even reference science, or the performance standards that must be met. It is an critical gap that needs to be addressed.
We need to be considering expanding buffers in riparian zones and ensuring restoration of native vegetation in those buffers if our goals are truly water quality and quantity protection. And how we do this needs to be guided by quantifiable standards that have been shown by science to meet performance standards. We have to stop enacting subjective standards based on how we “feel” or what we “believe.”
It is appalling, frankly, to watch how people’s selfish interests and personal values trump the science and sound policy needed to protect our ecosystems and natural resources, because it is exactly these types of small decisions, made locally, that on a cumulative basis, are responsible for our dying biosphere… the loss of biodiversity, climate change, ocean acidification, nutrient loading, air quality impacts, toxic chemical overload, etc.
So what is happening now, with this original proposal for a cumulative limit on impervious surfaces in rural areas, is larger than the Hirst case. It is about the every day ordinary actions and inactions that are taken all over the world. in communities just like ours, that will decide the fate of this planet and our species. In light of this, you might want to think about attending the next PC hearing, or at least submitting a written comment. It matters. It all matters.