Issues Ranging From Science To Property Underscore City Council Agenda

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by Ralph Nichols

About 260 cities, counties and other local jurisdictions in Washington are under requirement by the state Department of Ecology to update their Shoreline Master Programs (SMPs) by 2014.

All revised SMPs must conform to the 1972 Shoreline Management Act and regulations in the Washington Administrative Code (WAC) that implement this law.

To date, only 30 local shoreline programs have been updated, according to Ecology’s website.

For almost two years, Burien’s Shoreline Master Program has been under review and revision – first by the Shoreline Advisory Committee, then by the Planning Commission and, since April, by the city council.

Now, after a spring and summer of review and deliberation, council members are on the brink of approving the draft document as the city’s revised and updated SMP.

A public hearing by the Burien City Council, which will include comments by citizens, will be held at 6 p.m. tonight – Monday, Aug. 30.

It is currently anticipated that council members will adopt the document at their Sept. 13 meeting.

Next, the Burien SMP will go to Ecology, which will conduct the state’s review that will include a public hearing. The agency will then approve it or return it to the city for still more revisions.

Here is a look at two key elements of the SMP discussion in Burien: “No Net Loss” and related shoreline environmental science.

Three other key elements – a look at Burien’s marine shoreline, the private-property factor, and the Lake Burien shoreline – will be reported in a story before the public hearing.


A basic tenet of SMPs is “no net loss of shoreline ecological function.”

Until this year, application of the “best available science” was the accepted standard for determining the health of shoreline ecosystems. But defining what is “best available science” was often steeped in controversy.

To make this assessment easier to document, the 2010 Legislature changed this standard to one of “no net loss.”

But what constitutes a “net loss” – and what is scientific basis for defining and identifying it?

This is a conundrum that Burien council members have grappled with since receiving the draft SMP from the Planning Commission at the end of March.

Scientists who explained shoreline science in presentations to Burien council members earlier this year offered only general examples of what could constitute “net loss.”

A contributing factor may be that Ecology has yet to produce a base-line scientific definition of “net loss.”

Ecology’s Shoreline Master Program (SMP) Handbook – includes a new, detailed chapter – “No Net Loss of Shoreline Ecological Function” (PDF file) – but even this appears regulatory than scientific in focus and scope.

Here is what Ecology says about “no net loss” on its website:

“The new environmental protection standard for updated shoreline master programs is ‘no-net-loss of shoreline ecological functions.’ While restoration of degraded areas is encouraged, this does not mean all shoreline areas are required to be made ‘pristine’ or returned to pre-settlement conditions.

“Local governments are required to inventory current shoreline conditions – including identifying existing ecological processes and functions that influence physical and biological conditions. When a shoreline program is adopted, existing ecological conditions on the ground must be protected while development of shoreline areas is continued in accordance with adopted regulations. This is accomplished by avoiding or minimizing the introduction of impacts to ecological functions that result from new shoreline development….

“Local governments must plan for restoration in their shoreline master programs. Restoration is not a direct requirement for private development. Local government must consider its restoration needs, identify resources available to conduct restoration, prioritize restoration actions, and make sure development activities don’t interfere with planned restoration efforts in the community and vice versa. A shoreline master program may include incentives for developers to invest in shoreline restoration.”

The city of Seattle, which is in the process of updating its SMP, says:

“The basic concept behind no net loss of ecological function is that any loss of ecological function caused by an action must be offset by an equivalent gain in ecological function. A loss of ecological function is the removal or disruption of an ecological process that produces a certain physical condition or the loss or damage to a physical condition….

“A loss of ecological function can also occur when a physical condition such as vegetation along the shoreline is removed or when nearshore habitat is altered through the construction of a pier or other structures over this habitat.”

This is the gray area in which Burien council members and lawmakers in other local jurisdictions throughout the state are required by Ecology to operate as they update their regulations to implement the Shoreline Management Act.

Mayor Joan McGilton being sworn in.

“There is no scientific definition of ‘no net loss,’” Mayor Joan McGilton told The B-Town Blog in advance of an Aug. 30 public hearing by the Burien City Council on the revised local Shoreline Master Program.

But, McGilton said, there are obvious examples of what constitutes a “net loss” of shoreline ecological function.

“Disturbance is a net loss. Further disturbance is more of a net loss,” she said. “That means don’t make it any worse than it already is. That’s what [the state Department of] Ecology wants people to think about.”

The B-Town Blog interviewed McGilton not in her capacity as mayor but as an environmental engineer. She holds B.A. degree in zoology with an emphasis in biology and a master of science degree in engineering from the University of Washington.

Noting that this academic background “is relatively unusual,” McGilton added that her interests in infrastructure and a “natural systems approach” gave her “a special interest in the environment.”

McGilton said earlier that she is “disappointed” with the city council’s 4-3 vote of Aug. 16 to retain a 20-foot buffer with no additional setback along Burien’s residential marine shoreline.

“I oppose the argument [for the 20-foot buffer] the community brought forward: ‘the standards set in 1972 are just fine. Leave us alone.’ I disagree with that.

“The only affect a 50-foot buffer will have is on 11 undeveloped [shoreline] properties or on owners coming to the city for redevelopment permits on an existing [developed] property. And the only impact on them would be in the 50-foot zone. I just don’t see it.

“Anybody else there doing minimal yard maintenance, for anybody who doesn’t require a permit,” she continued, it is not a problem.”

Adding something larger – expanding a house or adding a garage or a water feature – would be a different matter, although even then no permit would be required if they were located beyond the buffer and setback.

“But for every square foot of space they take [for additions] that take away pervious surface, they should find a square foot in their yard to replace it somewhere else,” McGilton said.

Both city staff and the planning commission recommended a 50-foot buffer from the ordinary high water mark along Puget Sound, plus an additional 15-foot setback.

Councilmember Gordon Shaw.

The proposed change was strongly opposed by the Burien Marine Homeowners Association, who asked for scientific evidence to prove the expanded buffer was necessary. But neither scientists nor a representative from Ecology provided that information.

Councilman Gordon Shaw built on this lack of shoreline science to call for employing the residential Puget Sound waterfront as it currently exists as a baseline for determining any “net loss” that might occur in the future.

It also underscored his advocacy for leaving the buffer at 20 feet because no scientific evidence was presented to show that wider buffers would improve the shoreline environment.

“When I look at what these folks are saying, it’s more of a political statement and not a scientific statement,” McGilton said.

“There’s lots and lots and lots of science,” she noted. “But it doesn’t filter down to the stretch of beach from Seattle to Normandy Park.

“You can’t just say, ‘take out some bulkheads in Burien and you’ll restore the health of Puget Sound. The system is much more complex and it just doesn’t work that way.”

The work at Howard Hansen Dam to prevent flooding, the reach of the Green/Duwamish River and its watershed all impact the central Puget Sound area, McGilton said. “Every system has a subset and it all has to work together….

“My point of a 50-foot buffer is educational … Let’s make things a little better here than they were in 1972. Maybe now shoreline residents will be more careful in their 20-foot buffer than before we had this discussion.”

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