by Ralph Nichols 
Burien waterfront homeowners could hear for the first time at a public hearing at 6:30 p.m. tonight (Wednesday, Dec. 8) what state regulators think about the city’s recently updated Shoreline Master Program (SMP).
The Department of Ecology, which reviews local shoreline plans to determine if they comply with state guidelines, will conduct the hearing on the SMP approved by the Burien City Council on Sept. 27.
More than 260 cities and counties statewide must update their local SMPs by 2014. To date, only about 30 revised plans have been completed, then reviewed and approved by Ecology.
Washington’s 1972 Shoreline Management Act requires that each city and county with “shorelines of the state” have an SMP tailored to specific local geographic, economic and environmental needs – based on state laws and regulations.
Burien received a $117,000 grant from Ecology to fund consultant services and staff time involved in the lengthy process of updating its SMP.
The city’s Shoreline Advisory Committee met nine times before sending proposed revisions to the Burien Planning Commission last January. Following a three-month review, the Planning Commission submitted its recommendations to the city council.
Council members adopted the new SMP on a 6-1 vote and it was submitted to the state’s environmental department.
Ecology reviews each local SMP to determine if the document complies with state requirements. The agency has sole authority to approve a local SMP as submitted, approve it with changes requested by state regulators, or reject it.
Only after Ecology approves a local SMP does it become part of the statewide shoreline “master” program.
Waterfront homeowners, especially those along Puget Sound, expressed concern about what Ecology might do immediately after city council members adopted the local plan – perhaps with good cause.
Earlier this fall, Ecology approved Des Moines’ updated SMP – only after that city submitted its third revision, which was written with the assistance of an agency staff member.
And both the city of Sammamish and Jefferson County have been required to complete detailed responsiveness summaries for Ecology detailing “issues raised by state-wide public comments” received on the local SMPs.
In addition, environmental organizations with specific agendas that don’t include private property rights – which the Burien Marine Homeowners Association organized to protect – have already intervened in some local SMP processes.
A major point of controversy in the development of Burien’s revised SMP was a proposed change to buffers along the developed Puget Sound residential waterfront.
Submitted to by the planning commission to the city council, it would have expanded the existing 20-foot setback from the ordinary Puget Sound high-water mark to a 50-foot buffer plus an additional 15-foot buffer for any new development.
However, council members rejected the expanded buffer when they voted 4-3 in mid-August to retain the 20-foot setback. The expanded buffer does apply to non-residential areas on the marine shoreline – primarily along Seahurst Park.
Repair and replacement of bulkheads and shoreline vegetation were also points of controversy during the final weeks of council review, but citizens, city staff and council members reached a marginal agreement.
Marine shoreline homeowners are expected to cite at today’s public hearing the damage to bulkheads and nearby property caused by the Nov. 22-23 storm, and ask for an easing of restrictions on these structures.
Plaguing the SMP revision process until earlier this year was a requirement that shoreline management be based on the “best available science.”
Responding to difficulty in applying this nebulous standard – the criteria required by the state’s Growth Management Act for regulating critical areas – the 2010 Legislature changed the criteria for shorelines to “no net loss of ecological function.”
The determination of when “net loss” is calculated – at the time a new SMP is adopted or retroactively to when development first altered a shoreline – was a question council members wrestled with.
In the end, they accepted with some dissent the principle that any net loss of shoreline ecological function will be based on future impacts of waterfront development.
Citizens who don’t speak at this public hearing but want to voice their opinions may submit written comment to Ecology before 5 p.m. Dec. 17.
Send comments to:
WA Department of Ecolog
1440 10th St., Suite 102
Bellingham, WA 98225
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