Tuesday February 9, 2016

Council Approves Final CAO Updates

After months of standing-room-only CAO crowds, the Council Hearing Room was almost empty when the final vote was taken.

At a special meeting December 3, the San Juan County Council completed the often contentious process of updating of the County’s Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO).

The update is required by Washington’s Growth Management Act (GMA), which defines Critical Areas as: (1) Critical Aquifer Recharge Areas; (2) Fish and Wildlife Conservation Areas; (3) Geologically Hazardous Areas; (4) Wetlands; and (5) Frequently Flooded Areas. (An updated Critical Aquifer Recharge Area Ordinance was adopted in 2008.)

During its seven hour special session, by unofficial count Council Members proposed 32 amendments to the draft ordinances, approving 30 of the changes. The amendments affected items ranging from minor changes in wording to revision of tree protection requirements around wetlands, and changes to ensure that existing structures, uses and activities are considered conforming with the new requirements.

Near the end of the session, when the Wetlands Ordinance was brought up for a final vote, several members took the occasion to comment on the results of the long, difficult debate:

Council Member Rich Peterson, who voted against the Wetlands Ordinance commented, “I'll happily say that this ordinance is far better than I thought it would ever get, and I think we've done a good job on behalf of the citizens in bringing it this far.”
Council Member Lovel Pratt noted that neither the Council nor the Community would consider their work perfect, “but it’s the best product that can come out of this council and I’m glad we’re moving it forward.”

Council Member Howie Rosenfeld brought laughter from his colleagues with his comment: “In the recent campaign, I was given far more credit than I deserve for the CAO.” Both Rosenfeld and Pratt failed to win re-election in November in campaigns where the CAO was a major issue.

Council Chair Patty Miller, who shepherded the ordinances through the long revision process, expressed mixed emotions saying, “ I appreciate the spirit of cooperation that everybody worked on today. ” While expressing some reservations about the final wetlands regulations, she called it “a reasonable compromise.”

In final votes, the Council approved the Geologically Hazardous and Frequently Flooded Areas Ordinance unanimously; while the Wetlands, and Fish and Wildlife Habitat Ordinances, and an ordinance containing general provisions applicable to all critical areas were approved by 5-1 votes. Council Member Rich Peterson cast the dissenting votes.

With the update complete, the Council praised the County staff for its years of work on the update, singling out Planning Coordinator Shireene Hale and Deputy Prosecutor Jon Cain for special mention.

The often contentious process of updating regulations covering the County’s Critical Areas was begun in 2003, and went through a number of resets before it became a major focus of the County Council’s attention in 2009.
A 60 day appeals period begins on Wednesday, December 12, with the official publication of the ordinances.  Appeals can be filed with the Washington Growth Management Hearings Board.

The newly adopted ordinances, with amendments, are available online at: