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Whatcom County Shoreline Rules Hailed As Model for State

August 7, 2008

By John Stark, The Bellingham Herald, Wash.

Aug. 6–The Washington Department of Ecology has approved Whatcom County’s new Shoreline Master Program, and state officials hailed the locally developed set of environmental rules as a model for other counties to follow.

Gordon White, Ecology’s shorelands and environmental assistance program manager, said Whatcom County started the master program update process promptly in 2003, after the state mandated the updates, and became the first county to get the job done.

“It provides a really good model for other counties around the state,” White said.

After nearly five years of local committee work with representation from environmental groups, farmers, industries, Indian tribes and real estate developers, the Whatcom County Council approved a draft program last fall. It was then forwarded to Ecology, which issued its approval this week.

“This really has been a collaborative process,” County Executive Pete Kremen said. “I was somewhat skeptical that we were actually going to be as successful as we have been.”

The updated environmental rules will affect about 14 percent of the roughly 55,000 parcels of real estate in the county, but for the most part the more stringent rules on buffer zones along the county’s 400 miles of fresh- and saltwater shorelines will not be imposed retroactively. The program aims to preserve existing pristine shorelines, but also to restore degraded areas by means of incentives to property owners and public funding for restoration projects.

The restoration work is part of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s statewide initiative to clean up Puget Sound by 2020.

Officials identified these key features of the plan:

* It requires vegetation buffers of 100 to 150 feet, with structures set back an additional 10 feet from the buffer. The old shoreline program required a setback of 25 to 75 feet for structures but no buffers.

* New recreation piers along Lake Whatcom and other affected shores would have a maximum width of four feet instead of the current eight feet.

* Construction of so-called “armored” shore structures would be strictly limited. Instead of using rocks, cement or piling to prevent erosion at water’s edge, the plan favors more natural erosion-control strategies.

Josh Baldi, special assistant to the Ecology director, said Whatcom County’s new program benefits property owners by unifying the previous welter of zoning and shoreline rules, offering more clarity and predictability. At the same time, the program will offer shoreline property owners more protection from potentially harmful actions on neighboring properties.

State and county officials stressed that for most property owners, the new rules won’t be a dramatic change, because existing rules were already restrictive in most shore areas.

“We’ve been moving in this direction for a number of years,” said Barry Wenger, Ecology shoreline planner. “In a lot of ways, it’s not a giant change.”

Reach John Stark at 715-2274 or john.stark@bellinghamherald.com

Reach JOHN STARK atjohn.stark@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2274.

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