Spokane County will hold a public hearing tonight as part of its ongoing effort to update its Shoreline Master Program to comply with state law. But county leaders will not be including several waterways that will probably fall under the new regulations anyway.
The complicated process to inventory county creeks and lakes larger than 20 acres started in 2004. The county is well past the state’s deadline of January 2007 to update its 1973 rules that are designed to protect the ecology and aesthetics of all those shorelines.
But the process with the State Department of Ecology has had several hitches along the way, Commissioner Todd Mielke said.
“At this point, Ecology is saying that if we don’t like your plan we will write our own plan,” Mielke said. “I don’t know if that’s a public process. I think we have taken a look at their concerns and where there was compelling data, we tried to acquiesce and incorporate their concerns.
“We tried to balance the issue of environmental protection with individual property rights.”
While Ecology will have the final say as to the buffer zones and setbacks, which will limit what property owners can do and build around the lakes and streams, the goal has always been to have local officials take ownership of the changes, said Brian Farmer, who works with Ecology’s shorelines program.
“All I can do is stress again that it is our interest to work as well as we can with the county and get a good plan adopted,” Farmer said. “It is a partnership deal. We are interested in maintaining that partnership.”
But it’s been a troubled relationship.
For instance, Farmer said the state wanted county officials to include channel migration zones for all county creeks. Migration zones are those areas where flowing water naturally changes course over time.
Spokane County officials took the time to map the migration zone for Latah Creek, but the state didn’t ask to include other creeks – including Pine, the upper branches of Latah, Dragoon and Rock creeks – until after the Spokane County Planning Commission held its public hearing in 2006, said Jim Falk, associate planner at the county.
Development along those creeks “would be substantially more restricted,” Falk said. “The board didn’t disagree with the intent … but it felt it was time to proceed and move forward.”
The proposal includes a 50-foot buffer from the ordinary high water mark of a waterway. It discourages and prohibits, for the most part, building structures and the removal of plants in that zone.
However, the buffer zone could be as far as 200 feet depending on the shoreline designation and use, Farmer said.
“In Spokane County’s case, if there is a lot of work to do on it we can adopt the plan by rule,” he said, “and insert those areas where we thought they were deficient. Our preference is for the county to forward a plan we can work with.”
A property owner would face far fewer restrictions to build a cabin on a shoreline that has existing cabins and has an urban shoreline designation. But a property owner would be prohibited from building a cabin close to an undeveloped shoreline that remains in its natural state, Farmer said.
“If it is a natural shoreline which is functioning properly, we want to protect that as much as possible by limiting encroachment,” Farmer said.
Much of the breakdown between the agencies has been timing, Falk said.
For instance, county officials asked their state counterparts which lakes and waterways they wanted included. But much of the specific information didn’t come until after previous public hearings, Falk said.
While the public has twice had the chance to comment on the plan, new changes include the prohibition of new docks serving individual lots in a new subdivision and new boat ramps serving individual lots or parcels.
The county also included 22 lakes that were not previously considered. Of those, 18 are inside Turnbull Wildlife Refuge. Even including the lakes created more complications, Falk said.
“On a given lake, they wanted a portion to have a 75-, 100- or 200-foot buffer” depending on the shoreline, Falk said.
Farmer agreed that the regulations would be based on the quality of shoreline on which residents live. He pointed out that landowners will not be forced to remove any structures built prior to the adoption of the plan.
Despite the tortured history of the effort, Farmer gave credit to county planners.
“An inventory of your shorelines … is an essential part of the plan,” Farmer said. “It’s actually a good inventory they performed. But they haven’t taken the next step of establishing the appropriate setbacks and buffers.”