Burien City Council Votes To Retain 20-foot Buffer For Shoreline Homes

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by Ralph Nichols

Waterfront homeowners won a major victory on Aug. 16 when the Burien City Council voted 4-3 to keep the current 20-foot setback for homes and other structures along its Puget Sound shoreline.

The change is now included in the city’s draft Shoreline Master Program (SMP), which is being updated as required by state law. The document will be reviewed again by council members at an Aug. 30 public hearing.

City staff recommended – and the Burien Planning Commission earlier wrote into the draft SMP – a 50-foot marine shoreline buffer with an additional 15-foot setback from the ordinary high water mark.

Homeowners along Puget Sound vigorously and vocally opposed the greatly expanded buffer/setback – even after city staff reworded the draft so all structures within the wider area would exist legally when the plan takes effect.

Council members Jack Block Jr., Kathy Keene, Lucy Krakowiak and Gordon Shaw voted to keep the 20-foot buffer – with no additional setback.

They also vetoed a proposed requirement for a marine riparian buffer behind bulkheads with the inclusion of low-impact development features.

Mayor Joan McGilton, Deputy Mayor Rose Clark and Councilman Brian Bennett supported the 50-foot buffer and additional 15-foot setback with the staff revision to accommodate existing shoreline homes and other structures.

“The buffer vote reflects the informed consideration of the council,” Julie Dow, secretary of the Burien Marine Homeowners Association, told the B-Town Blog after the meeting. “It accurately reflects the fully developed nature of Burien’s shorelines, meets the required no-net-loss standard required and preserves property rights.”

Dow added, “The BMHA is appreciative of council’s care and effort in striking the balance to protect our community’s long range interests, and a plan which reflects the current condition of our shoreline and the entire community’s desire to improve our natural environment.”

Before the council’s vote, Shaw noted “the SMA [Washington’s Shoreline Management Act] requires us to look at current conditions and no net loss beyond.” He asked what would be the benefit of an additional 30 feet of buffer on top of the existing 20 feet.

Block said “protecting our citizens and their property rights” was essential and why he would vote to keep the 20-foot setback.

McGilton conceded that Burien’s developed Puget Sound waterfront reflects “a 100 percent net loss” in shoreline ecological function “and anything those folks choose to do will improve” the shoreline environment.

Even so, she argued, “the 50-foot buffer is something I think should be in the SMP” because it would make more sense to the state Department of Ecology, which must give final approval to the city’s plan.

Stormwater control “is where our primary time and effort need to be spent,” McGilton added. Shaw agreed, noting that would do more to protect Puget Sound “than [shoreline] residents could ever achieve.”

Clark suggested that the council inform local legislators that revising a shoreline plan “is not the way we should be going,” and ask them to fund loans for better water treatment.

Observing that it is “lucky for us that we don’t have to deal with commercial or industrial uses,” Keene noted that she knows “a lot of people that don’t feel comfortable” with the wider buffer/setback.

Council members then voted 4-3 to leave as written draft regulations for repairing, maintaining and replacing bulkheads.

McGilton, Clark, Bennett and Keene voted to make no changes, while Block, Krakowiak and Shaw wanted to revise language they argued could be interpreted as too restrictive, or to eliminate that language altogether.

Staff advised, however, that the wording is required by the Shoreline Management Act.

Dow said later that “if the right to rebuild a bulkhead is absolute, then it seems simple enough to state it in just that way. So, yes, there is indeed still room for improvement and clarification on bulkhead requirements.
“When a one-word answer is all that is needed from our senior planner – “yes,” any existing bulkhead can be replaced – a need for further regulation is hard to understand.”

Noting that “buffers and non-conformance were, and will remain to be, intertwined,” Dow said “it’s hard to break down preserving one family’s residence and legacy into municipal code. Each of our members has concerns not only related to our individual properties, but also to the impact overall on our community and to our neighbors….

“We can all agree that Burien’s community has been very engaged and active in this effort. We look forward to moving into a positive, cooperative effort to make a difference for our city and the Sound.”

Note: Additional comments will be included in an updated account coming later this week. Stay tuned.

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