State and local officials believe they are closing in on a long-delayed update of Spokane County’s state-supervised shoreline rules.
The last time county commissioners and the state Department of Ecology closed in was nearly a year ago, a half-dozen years after the review began.
Since then, commissioners have made a few gains, including the right to renovate and extend the Centennial Trail or to build similar trails.
“We’re whittling it down to the meatier issues,” said county Commissioner Todd Mielke. “We’re having really good, productive discussions.”
Sara Hunt, regional DOE shorelands manager, agreed that negotiations are going well and that only a few issues remain unresolved. They’re the most difficult, of course.
After a session Friday, Hunt and Mielke said the thorniest remaining issues included shoreline buffers, docks and classifications for waterfront land.
Hunt and Mielke planned to discuss land classifications on Monday and docks on Wednesday.
Land classifications and buffers are closely related because the county is proposing a new “high quality area” designation instead of the deeper buffers Ecology wants.
Hunt said the county’s uniform 50-foot buffers are inadequate to satisfy the current legal requirement for “no net loss of environmental function.”
The DOE is calling for buffers two to four times as deep as the current county standard: 100 feet in the shoreline residential category, 150 feet in urban conservancy, 150 feet in rural conservancy and 200 feet in natural environment.
Spokane County proposes instead to require property owners to take measures to protect land 50 to 200 feet from shorelines.
Buffers traditionally have prohibited structures and many activities, but Hunt said the DOE has agreed to allow trees and bushes to be trimmed – not removed or topped – to preserve views. A “site development plan” would be required.
State officials want the county to shift some shoreland into more restrictive categories. Commissioners contend that’s not necessary and is inadvisable in some cases. For example, Mielke said, commissioners have a legal duty to not interfere with established subdivision plats.
Ecology officials say they have a duty to apply best environmental science under state law and negotiated guidelines that were established by court order in 2003.
Hunt said the department’s original proposal to require a zoning variance for docks longer than 20 feet “sparked a strong reaction from commissioners.”
She said DOE officials now are willing to allow 55-foot docks without a variance hearing as long as the length is the “minimum necessary” to reach 4-foot-deep water.
“Channel migration zones” – areas in which streams can be expected to meander – were on the table Friday.
Ecology officials want the county to add zones for the Little Spokane River as well as Deadman, Dragoon, Pine and Rock creeks and the portion of Hangman Creek not already mapped for migration zones.
Structures aren’t allowed in channel migration zones, and “hardening” of the shoreline with rocks or other materials wouldn’t be allowed in most cases.
Mielke said commissioners agree the designations need to be made, but want time to inform the public and take comments. Hunt said the DOE is looking for a way to do that within the current update, not separately as commissioners proposed.
Mielke said he was surprised Friday when the department pointed out a law that requires waterfront subdivisions with four or more lots to provide public access to the water.
“That’s not going to go over very well” if it means property owners have to share their docks with strangers, Mielke said.
Hunt said the law can be satisfied in a variety of ways, including allowing only “visual access” if physical access is impractical or too burdensome.
She said Ecology officials hope to “hone down the debate” and issue formal findings on the county plan by late July or early August.
That would set the stage for commissioners to conduct a required public hearing and adopt their plan. Ecology officials can suggest changes or impose their own plan if they don’t like the county’s.
“Our hope is that we can collaborate and come to agreement,” Hunt said.