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Tim Botkin: Critical Issues in Critical Areas Ordinance

August 30, 2005

Most Kitsap residents, upon reading local reports about proposed Critical Area Ordinance revisions, probably roll their eyes with a "here we go again" attitude. Another well-rehearsed scene in which County staff try to defend the rules against an angry opposing contingent — now including some serving on the Kitsap Planning Commission — with echoes of "land grab" and "property rights" resounding off the courthouse walls.

In truth, this has become a very technical and complex area of regulation, mostly because of the constant challenges and pressures exerted by opposing forces, forcing drafters to delve into extravagant detail to cover potential hot spots. That detail then becomes more fodder for outrage, the spiraling vortex registering second only to Hurricane Katrina on wind disturbance meters. Little of the blow derives from a rational understanding of the science or the rules — its germination is emotion from something so complex "imposed by onerous government." Unfortunately, incentives and compromise get lost in the cacophony.

Just as certainly, the number of us truly affected by the rules is pretty small. In a two-year period following the 1999 CAO revisions stemming from Endangered Species designations, of the first 100 or so permits subject to review, only two — repeat 2 — resulted in permit denial.

Many probably say "why bother, aren't things OK now, why open this box of pestilence?" That attitude, coupled with the natural tendency of those in the development community to resist any new rules even before they are proposed, makes it pretty hard to generate any traction in support of this significant work. As one who has read many different such ordinances through the years, and has dealt with the intimate details of drafting and enforcing Kitsap's various versions, I see the current attempt as an improved, if not perfect standard.

There are a few entry points into this discussion. For one, the goals outlined at the beginning of the ordinance are hard to argue. Consistently, citizen surveys rate water and environmental protection at the top of our reasons to love Kitsap — that summarizes the goals.

Secondly, and much under-reported, is the number of occasions upon which complaints arise from people whose equal "property rights" are being harmed by negligent actions of nearby landowners. These numbers are higher than those whose permits are restricted — and the reason why an ordinance is needed

Third is the issue of science. Once we agree that critical areas deserve protection — even KAPO proclaims "environmental stewardship" as a priority — the question is how. The first question is how do we figure out how? The answer is to turn to those whose profession is evaluating the effective means of preventing the insidious degradation of eco-systems. We presumably hope to avoid saying in a couple of decades, "how could we be so stupid to let that go — forever?" Another term for these professionals is scientists.

Science is really a hot topic. Some people with college degrees in a science will say just about anything if they get paid — causing inconsistencies. So to be a "best scientist" the law says one has to have a degree, have published work that others can read, and have broad support for that work from others in the science community.

Other than the occasional "intelligent design" attempt to prioritize opinion over scientific fact, this system works fairly well.

Beyond that, here are some significant points in Kitsap's proposal:

  • The thoroughness of the "definitions" section is notable, and helpful.

  • The ordinance reaches new levels in recognizing that water flows; i.e. the connectivity of surface and groundwater systems is key to protection.

  • Habitat and water quality functions of wetlands are addressed separately, which makes a lot of sense.

  • There are many more opportunities to reduce, versus increase, buffer widths due to site circumstances. You be the judge.

    There are other significant points that should have been included:

  • I found no distinction between "rural" and "urban" properties. We should anticipate easier development in urban areas at the time we designate them urban.

  • The ordinance designates a still-arbitrary "buffer" from the critical area, then applies exceptions. The default should be a site-specific development plan, with a numeric buffer as fall-back for those unwilling to do a plan.

    Remember that this ordinance applies only when somebody applies to the County for a permit. To meet the larger goals, all of our critical areas should have an opportunity for protection — whether proposed for development or not. A plan for doing so by giving affected landowners a tax break to protect properties didn't quite get going in 2002.

    The big issue is this — whatever this community does, we do on purpose. Even accepting the status quo will determine the future, there is no avoidance. The only question for this round is "how far do we go in compromising future resources to satisfy current complaints about regulation?"

    Maybe we should let the kids decide.

    Tim Botkin may be reached at

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