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County approves revisions to law protecting shoreline

Changes include larger setbacks, restrictions on size, location of lake docks

Spokane County commissioners have approved a sweeping update of the county’s shoreline law after being forced by the state to add protections that were lacking.

Shorelines in the unincorporated county stretch over 400 miles, but they are governed by a 40-year-old law.

A unanimous vote by county commissioners Tuesday evening came after nearly 10 years of work.

The vote comes as other cities and counties across the region work to complete their state-required revisions of shoreline laws, including Spokane Valley, Medical Lake and Millwood.

Four years ago, commissioners tried to enact a considerably weaker update of their Shoreline Master Program, but the state Department of Ecology intervened to force stronger protections.

Commissioners agreed to rework their proposal. The state responded by rewriting wholesale sections. The law approved on Monday includes the state revisions.

The measure now goes to the state ecology director for acceptance.

At the heart of the law are a series of setbacks required along various types of shorelines. The county previously did not allow development within 50 feet of the high-water mark.

The new law puts setbacks at 100 feet in residential areas, 150 feet in conservation areas and 200 feet in natural areas.

“The larger buffers are one of the tools to protect pollutants and toxins” from entering waterways, said Sara Hunt, a shorelines program manager for the state.

Docks are prohibited on much of the Spokane River and smaller streams. New limits are being placed on the sizes and location of lake docks. Only a single community dock is allowed in new subdivisions.

Public access is protected and encouraged and in some cases required.

The county has nearly 50 bodies of water, including the Spokane River, Latah Creek and the Little Spokane River.

But continuing pressure for shoreline homes and recreation shows the importance of having a stronger law, officials said.

Commissioner Todd Mielke said he and fellow commissioners have tried to maintain protections for private property rights at the same time facing the reality that they had to comply with state law.

“I remind people we are not the state Legislature,” he said on Monday.

Commissioners said they went over the proposal carefully to envision the kinds of issues property owners might confront on county waterways. But they acknowledged the overarching public interest in shoreline protections.

“It does mean we have to be good stewards of that waterway,” Commissioner Al French said.

The shoreline law is considered a component in the cleanup of the Spokane River, which is costing hundreds of millions of dollars in waste and stormwater treatment facilities.

Kitty Klitzke, Spokane program manager for Futurewise, said the new shoreline program is a big improvement over the old shoreline law, with some exceptions.

Futurewise argued that the McKenzie Bay area of Liberty Lake be designated as a natural shoreline instead of a residential shoreline because of its lack of development. That would have put development setbacks at 200 feet instead of the 100 feet allowed in residential designations.

The law requires that there be no net loss of environmental function along a shoreline from development. Project review and design will be required. Restoration projects can be used to offset other impacts.

The city of Spokane’s new shoreline law was accepted by the state in 2010.

For more information, visit and click on the shoreline master program on the building and planning main page.

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