At public meetings Oct. 26 at Peninsula High School and Nov. 17 at Key Peninsula Middle School, Pierce County Councilman Terry Lee explained new proposals to identify and protect critical salmon habitat along marine shorelines. Also discussed was an amendment to the Pierce County Code to eliminate the Shoreline Density Exception along freshwater and marine shorelines.

Previously, the Central Puget Sound Growth Management Hearings Board found that Pierce County’s proposed protections were not adequate or in compliance with state law. Subsequently, Pierce County’s consultant, Pentec Environmental, conducted nearshore habitat assessments of marine shorelines through the use of aerial photography, boats and underwater cameras to identify high value salmon habitat areas. Of approximately 179 miles of shoreline assessed west of the Narrows, only 545 parcels, or about 11 percent of all parcels lying in the Key Peninsula/Gig Harbor areas, are directly affected by newly proposed amendments to critical area regulations of the Growth Management Act, according to Pierce County Special Project Coordinator Debby Hyde.

Feeder bluffs, high bank properties such as those found along Narrows Park, account for about 86 percent of the 545 parcels identified by Pentec. These are subject to natural erosion carrying nutrients to the beach. This material supports forage fish upon which salmon feed. New regulations replace a 50-foot minimum ordinary high water mark setback with a 100-foot minimum setback. Almost all of these feeder bluff parcels already support existing structures, and many of the remaining 100 or so are small strips adjoining larger pieces. Feeder bluff lots are often so steep and fragile that they require extensive geotechnical and environmental studies, and adherence to the shorelines code as well, posing further restrictions.

The remaining 14 percent of the 545 parcels contain high concentrations of eel grass, nutrient-rich salmon habitat. These parcels lie along several shorelines, including parts of Burley Lagoon, Mayo Cove, Filucy Bay and Dutcher’s Cove, among others. They include salt water marshes and estuaries. No new development will be permitted on these parcels within 200 feet of the ordinary high water mark, according to Lee.

At the Oct. 26 meeting, Hyde said that unless a waterfront parcel lies in a floodplain, the county will help an owner find a way to build on it. A few options open to critical-area property owners include meeting current county code setbacks, requesting a variance, or a reasonable use hearing. If an owner’s property is on the critical areas list, it will remain on it until the county code changes. At the Nov. 17 meeting, Lee suggested that if owners of affected parcels wanted to take advantage of existing regulations, they should have their permits approved prior to the adoption of the new ordinance.

The proposed new amendments to the Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO), approved 7-0 by the Pierce County Council Nov. 15, will be submitted to the Growth Management Hearings Board by Jan. 12. The board will hold a public compliance hearing on Feb. 17, at which time no testimony will be taken. If final approval is obtained without a board counterproposal, new regulations will go into effect on March 1.

The Central Puget Sound Growth Management Hearings Board also found that Pierce County Zoning Code’s Shoreline Density Exceptions constitute inappropriate low-density sprawl in rural areas, and ordered the county to amend this provision. On the Key Peninsula, 346 parcels will feel the effect of this change, according to Lee. The new amendment permits one dwelling per 5-acre shoreline parcel, based upon zoning. According to Lee, no exceptions will be made to this regulation. Prior to its elimination, only abut 5 percent of shoreline properties were large and wide enough to be considered for subdivision under the exception, even though they did not meet the 5- or 10-acre zoning requirements applicable to inland properties. The remaining 95 percent of shoreline parcels are not of sufficient size to be affected by this amendment.

The proposed elimination of the Shoreline Density Exception in Pierce County will be submitted to the Growth Management Hearings Board prior to Jan. 31, with a compliance hearing to be set sometime in February. If accepted by the board, this amendment will also become effective March 1.

Audience reaction to the proposed amendments were mixed, impassioned, and volatile. At both meetings, greater interest and resident testimony focused on the CAO. At PHS, the entire room applauded loudly when a citizen, pounding the podium, railed against the county for “taking” his right to use his own land without compensation. Fewer people supported a woman who spoke passionately in favor of these regulations, and even adding more, in order to protect shorelands for future generations and the environment. A smaller gathering at KPMS did not mean fewer concerns. Repeatedly, the county was accused of ignoring facts and proceeding with preconceived actions. Landowners, both on the shoreline and inland, listened attentively throughout the discussion; many left with no conclusive answers, and more questions.

Lee said he knew of no groups coming forward to appeal either amendment. He said environmental groups such as Citizens for a Healthy Bay, Department of Ecology and Tahoma Audubon hoped for greater restrictions; development groups hoped for fewer. The council found support for the new proposals from members of both sides of the issues. “Governance is satisfying the irritated without irritating the satisfied,” he said.

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