by Marlene Finley
Skagit County is proposing a Comprehensive Update (major rewrite) to the County’s Shoreline Master Program (SMP), which has not been comprehensively updated since its adoption in 1976. The SMP is a combined planning and regulatory document that contains policies, goals, and specific land-use regulations for shorelines. It is intended to balance development, public access, and protection of natural resources and shoreline areas.
Locally adopted Shoreline Master Programs implement the state’s Shoreline Management Act (SMA). The SMA jurisdiction includes the Pacific Ocean shoreline and the shorelines of Puget Sound, rivers, and streams and lakes above a certain size. It also regulates wetlands associated with these shorelines. The shoreline includes 200 feet landward of the ordinary high water mark. The primary responsibility for administering this regulatory program is assigned to local governments, with significant oversight by the Department of Ecology (DOE).
To accomplish this balance between development and protection, local governments issue shoreline substantial development, conditional use, and variance permits, as well as shoreline exemptions pursuant to the policies and use regulations in their shoreline master programs. Approvals by local government of shoreline conditional use and variance permits must be reviewed by DOE, which then issues the final decision. The Shorelines Hearings Board hears appeals from permit decisions, and from shoreline penalties.
Current Status in Skagit
The draft Updated Shoreline Master Program for Skagit County is currently under review by the Skagit County Planning Commission. After review and recommendation by the Planning Commission, the draft moves to the County Commissioners for review, changes and ultimately, adoption. The Public Comment Period is open now and will close June 22, 2021. The next public meeting on the SMP will be a joint work session of the Planning Commission and County Commission on June 15, 2021.
This is a major overhaul of the SMP for Skagit County. While some of the changes are improvements, there are deficiencies in the document’s ability to protect critical areas and ensure no net loss of ecological value and function – both requirements under the SMA.
Buffers at Risk
For example, the draft allows for significant buffer reductions along streams, shorelines and wetlands. Buffers reduce toxic runoff from entering streams, rivers and the Salish Sea. They not only improve water quality but also provide ecosystem services such as reduced water temperatures through shading and improved air quality. Buffers provide habitat for terrestrial and shoreline species, serve to hold water on the landscape and provide detritus and other food for aquatic invertebrates and fish. Some of the buffer reductions in this draft SMP exceed the maximum reduction of 25% recommended by the Department of Ecology. The draft also allows timber harvest within stream and shoreline buffers.
Loosening Rules for Shoreline Armoring
Another concern is the leniency regarding shoreline armoring with language that includes boulders as “soft armoring”. Shoreline armor are physical structures, such as seawalls or riprap, used to attempt to slow down coastal erosion. Well made structures can last up to 50 years, but others will crack or fall apart much sooner due to pressure and slides from the slope behind them and the impact of waves and drift logs.
The beach in front of a bulkhead is also continually scoured by deflected waves, which can expose the base of the bulkhead and lead it to sink or fail. All of these challenges will likely be worsened by rising sea levels due to climate change.
Conventional, hard armoring methods (e.g., bulkhead, seawall, revetment, and rockery) disrupt natural ecosystems by separating the terrestrial environment from the nearshore marine environment, changing the physical characteristics of the shoreline and eliminating forage fish spawning habitat; ultimately limiting food availability for salmon and orca. To learn more about the effects of shoreline armoring and methods to restore shoreline ecosystems, watch the new 10 minute video by NW Straits Foundation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9eWqIRpJLk
This draft fails to include sea level rise and climate change, both of which significantly impact our shorelines as rising sea levels threaten homes, farms and infrastructure and rising temperatures put more stress on salmon bearing streams and rivers.
The draft fails to protect sensitive eel grass beds from shoreline and over water development. It reduces protections for the marine environment by lessening restrictions on aquaculture.
These are just a few of the concerns recognized by several nonprofit groups and tribes who are reviewing the draft and provided comments during the May 11, 2021 Public Hearing before the Skagit County Planning Commission.
Marlene Finley is the President of Evergreen Islands, a local nonprofit serving for over 40 years to promote, protect, and defend the saltwater islands and environment in Skagit County.
Photo credit: South Fidalgo Island from Mt. Erie by Eric Hall