Sunday, Mar 4 2012 - Over the past several years, San Juan County’s update of its Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) has had its stops and stumbles; but in the past year it has begun to move steadily toward completion. The County Council recently progressed through amendments to the general provisions of the ordinance, and the Planning Commission has scheduled a hearing on updates to the contentious Wetlands section of the ordinance at the Grange in Friday Harbor on Tuesday morning, March 6 at 8:30 AM.
The update of the regulations governing activities that affect areas and eco-systems essential to the safety, quality of life and environmental integrity of the County, is mandated by state law. The updating process was begun in 2003 with an original deadline for completion in 2005.
Over this past year, working with a team of scientific experts, the County adopted a synthesis of scientific research and principles to guide the effort; completed an analysis of the regulations; and moved the amendments associated with frequently flooded, geologically hazardous and general provisions (those applying to all types of critical areas) forward pending a final consistency review later this spring.
If adopted in its current form, the recently reviewed “General Provisions” would:
· Expand exemptions to include the replacement of existing structures, development areas and uses, as long as critical areas are protected;
· Provide two options for reasonable use exceptions, granted where critical area regulations would deprive a land owner of all economic or beneficial use of a property. A “no mitigation option” would be available for small scale development, and a “mitigation option” could be used to enable a larger area for development projects;
· Enact new provisions for non-conforming structures, uses and activities, allowing them to remain in perpetuity, if they create are no additional adverse impacts to critical areas;
· Establish a review process for activities that meet the definition of “development”.
At least one additional adjustment to the general section is likely. During the initial Council review, Councilmember Patty Miller expressed concern that the proposed review process for new development could be interpreted to require a review of even very small scale land development or land disturbance activities. At its meeting on Tuesday, February 28, the Council revisited that issue, and voted unanimously to direct staff to propose alternative language to eliminate unnecessarily burdensome requirements for development activities that do not otherwise require a permit.
Critical areas, as defined by state law, include wetlands, fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas, frequently flooded areas, geologically hazardous areas, and critical aquifer recharge areas.
The Council hopes to complete the update of the CAO this summer.