Critical Areas Ordinance is a hot topic in Lake StevensBY PAM STEVENS | EDITOR According to the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA), each city is given 14 goals they need to meet in order to balance their comprehensive planning process.
Some of the items included in these goals are to encourage urban growth where facilities are adequate to meet service needs; eliminate sprawling low-density housing that may be destructive to critical areas, rural area and resource values; encourage affordable housing and economic development and also to encourage the retention of open space and recreational areas.
Another goal created through the GMA is to protect the environment and enhance the quality of life.
This is where the city’s Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) comes in to play.
Cities around the state were given a deadline of late 2004 to have their CAO’s finalized.
“State law deadline was 2004. They extended it for some jurisdictions that weren’t done to 2005 but they did not extend it again.” Becky Ableman, City Planner said. “So, we were out of compliance.”
“That was the frustrating part. We knew that we needed to get our comprehensive plan update done first.” Jan Berg, City Administrator said. “Our strategy all along was to get our comp plan updated and then do our CAO.”
With the large amount of time and work that would have to be put into both processes, the city’s plan was to finish the comprehensive plan and then work out the CAO.
“That’s two huge projects to do public process all at once,” Berg said.
“We finished our comp plan in 2006 which was fast and furious but done right. Then we started tackling critical areas. We knew it was going to be a topic with a lot of diverse opinions, so let’s get those opinions in a sub-committee and let them come to some consensus,” Berg added.
The city formed their sub-committee for critical areas in May 2006 using members of the community with diverse ideas of what is best for the city’s critical areas including what buffer sizes should be on streams and wetlands.
“Our CAO sub-committee was formed in early 2006, setting a schedule with completion in spring 2007 as the first goal,” city councilmember Steve Brooks said.
City Administrator Berg said that the sub-committee released their draft in Jan. 2007 and that they were also working with the city’s consultant. The planning commission got the draft in March and included two separate public comment periods before sending their decisions on the CAO to the city council.
Within the public process the city is required to hold two public hearings. However, the city chose to hold five to give the citizens plenty of time to give their opinions on the CAO.
“We only have to have one hearing each with planning commission and city ouncil. We had two with the planning commission and three with the city council,” Ableman said.
The city had a deadline of May 7 looming over them to have the CAO passed before they could turn in their application to the State for a low interest Public Works Trust Fund loan to help expand the sewer district.
“The schedule included reviews and public hearings before both planning commission and city council while keeping May 1 as a deadline to be able to make the application for a $10 million Public Works Trust Fund loan for the new sewer treatment plant,” Brooks said.
If the city can get this loan it will help defer the costs to the public for the new sewer treatment plant. However, it needed to have the application finalized and turned in by May 7.
“Each million borrowed from Public Works Trust Fund will save rate payers approximately one dollar a month in sewer rate increases when the plant comes on-line,” councilmember Brooks said.
With the ordinance in the hands of the city council, the public had more opportunities to share their comments on what they feel would be best for the city’s streams, wetlands and the lake.
More than one city council meeting included heated comment from Lake Stevens’ citizens who wanted to see the buffers now in place made larger to protect the habitat and other critical areas in and around the city.
Council members also heard from the Department of Ecology, whose hope is that councils will require the largest buffers possible.
They also heard from Brent Kirk, who used to run Drainage District 8.
Kirk feels that there is no need to make buffers larger because the lake’s aeration system is doing a great job of keeping our lake clean. He has also tested water all over the Lake Stevens area and has found no indication that there are problems with any of the water including streams and wetlands.
Councilmember Brooks listened intently to both sides of the argument at city council meetings. After listening to Kirk he felt he had come up with the best possible solution for the city.
“Kirk explained very well how the lake is in better condition now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. Brent and some other members on the sub-committee taught me that quality buffers along with public education can work in urban areas,” Brooks said.
Hearing from many others in the community and taking into consideration what they were given as “best available science” the council was asked to vote on the critical areas ordinance.
The ordinance, as recommended by the planning commission, was to have 50 foot buffers.
At the city council meeting on April 30, only seven days from the Public Trust Fund Loan application deadline, councilmember Karen Alessi moved to approve the recommended buffers. It was seconded and opened up for public testimony once more.
Councilmember Suzanne Quigley brought forward a graph that showed buffers in other cities in the county and also the county buffers. Only Arlington, Snohomish city and some county buffers showed less width protection than those in Lake Stevens.
“A majority of the council members and I discussed the fact that we have the lowest majority of buffers over all the lowest buffers in the county and we all felt very strongly that we should be doing better,” Quigley said. “If we were doing a really super job of protecting our lake the aeration system wouldn’t be needed.”
Protecting the environment and protecting the economic development of Lake Stevens are both major concerns for Mayor Vern Little. Both are goals of the GMA.
“I’m as concerned for the environment as anyone else,” Little said. “If there was anything indicating that we need bigger buffers, we would create them.”
Little’s concerns include making buffers that are unnecessarily large while hurting the economic development downtown. He is looking for a compromise that will protect both sides of the GMA goals.
Quigley sees the lake as our greatest asset for the future.
“I truly believe that you can protect the environment and have economic vitality. There are some people who think that if you protect the environment you will stop economic development,” Quigley said. “I think just the opposite.”
Others on the council have concerns about having affordable housing in Lake Stevens while still being able to keep the streams and wetlands protected.
“While much larger buffers are nice, I know they will have impacts on economic development as well as having affordable housing in Lake Stevens,” Brooks said. “It is a challenge to balance all 14 GMA goals while maintaining quality of life for the community.”
Many on the council wanted to make significant changes to the CAO that night. However, changes of that nature would be hard to make in a timely manner, therefore, losing the opportunity to apply for the Public Works Trust Fund loan.
“The feeling was that we all appreciated these low interest loans that the sewer district is able to have. None of us wanted to sneer at those kinds of dollars,” Quigley said.
After much discussion, council members Dooley and Hartwell crafted an alternative proposal.
The highest protection the council voted on is 75 foot buffers for certain streams and the lake. For wetlands it ranges as high as 150 feet for the very sensitive wetlands.
Dooley and Hartwell suggested that they pass the ordinance as written to make sure the Public Trust Fund loans were not at risk but also added a directive to have city staff compile more studies and to revisit the proposals in six months.
“The proposal that we noodled together struck, what we feel is a very reasonable balance between the very extreme environmental advocate position and the very limited protection that our current ordinances gave,” Quigley said.
For now, the council feels it reached the best possible consensus for the time being but they will take another look at it in September.