Opinion

We need your help with critical areas ordinance

Defending rural character. Protecting the natural environment. Accommodating growth. Promoting a vibrant economy. Through planning, policies, regulations and incentives, King County continually struggles to reconcile these and other values critical to our shared quality of life.

2004 is an especially important year for growth management in King County. In early March, King County Executive Ron Sims sent to the County Council two major legislative packages that will shape growth and new development in unincorporated King County for years to come: The King County Comprehensive Plan 10-Year Update and amendments to critical areas, stormwater and clearing and grading regulations.

The King County Council's Growth Management and Unincorporated Areas Committee (GMUAC), which I chair, will be reviewing these ordinances over the next few months and making recommendations to the full Council during the summer.

The unincorporated area of King County is home to more than 353,000 people, 134,000 of whom live in rural areas. Our unincorporated areas have an incredible diversity of land uses, from rural lands on Vashon Island, to residential areas in the foothills of the Cascades, to high-density urban areas like White Center. The interests of these residents are just as diverse.

In 1992, all local governments in King County worked together to establish an Urban Growth Boundary and agreed on a set of countywide planning policies to guide development across the county. Under the countywide planning policies, new growth is directed into urban areas. The Comprehensive Plan implements these policies and helps to protect our rural and natural resource lands.

Comprehensive

Plan update

The executive's 10-year update reflects the sufficiency of the current Urban Growth Boundary to accommodate projected growth, and only minor changes are being proposed to the boundary. Proposed policy changes would allow the creation of "cottage housing" in the urban area as an affordable housing option, expand the types of economic activities allowed in the rural area and change how we determine whether roads are adequate to support planned growth.

Critical areas regulations

The County has had critical areas regulations in place since 1990. The state Growth Management Act (GMA) subsequently required local governments to adopt regulations protecting critical areas. In 1995, the GMA was further amended to require local governments to consider "Best Available Science" when protecting the functions and values of critical areas and to give special consideration to protection of migrating salmon. Critical areas include both hazard areas (like floodplains and steep slopes) and environmentally sensitive areas (such as streams and wetlands).

However, even with these protections in place, we continue to see landslides caused by upland development, the listing of Chinook salmon and bull trout as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, flooding of farms and residences and pollution in streams that exceeds state standards.

Critical areas regulations continue to be controversial. The executive-proposed regulations would increase protections for critical areas. The local impacts of these regulations can vary greatly, with some landowners facing significant changes in the kinds of development activities that can be carried out on their property. Many residents have raised concerns about "one-size-fits-all" approaches to critical areas protection that would, for example, apply the same stream buffer size regardless of local conditions.

In response, the executive has presented a new regulatory option that would allow rural and farm landowners to create stewardship plans specific to their properties and to qualify for tax benefits.

Although the GMUAC is still early in its review of the critical areas package, some key issues are already emerging:

* Equity: Do the proposed standards ensure that all unincorporated residents share responsibility for critical areas protection? For example, if rural landowners face stricter standards, will tax incentives be available to shift some of the tax burden to urban landowners? Do the proposed standards ensure that upland landowners do their part to mitigate stormwater runoff impacts on farmers in the floodplain?

* Ease of implementation: If the flexible regulatory path gets a favorable reaction from landowners, what steps need to be taken to ensure that the process and cost for preparing farm plans and rural stewardship plans are reasonable, predictable and readily available?

The GMUAC wants to hear from residents throughout rural and urban unincorporated King County. Special evening meetings are scheduled to take testimony on the King County Comprehensive Plan Update and proposed amendments to critical areas, stormwater, and clearing and grading standards.

Locally, a meeting will be held from 6:30-8 p.m. in Carnation Elementary School's gym, 4950 Tolt Ave., on Thursday, April 22.

You can also send your comments by e-mail by using the forms for the Comp Plan at: www.metrokc.gov/council/compplan/. Or for the Critical Areas Ordinances at: www.metrokc.gov/council/cao.

As chair of the Growth Management and Unincorporated Areas Committee, I look forward to citizen insights into the executive's proposed plan.

Dow Constantine is a member of the Metropolitan King County Council.

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