Updated Oct. 25 with a comment from Council President Kristiana Johnson
Rebuffing the Edmonds City Council’s Sept. 27 vote, Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling on Monday announced that he has sided with the Washington State Department of Ecology in supporting a narrower buffer for the Edmonds Marsh.
In a letter to Washington State Department of Ecology Director Maia D. Bellon, Earling said that the Ecology Department’s proposed 65-foot setback (50-foot buffer with a 15-foot building setback) is the best option for protecting the marsh. The city council by a 4-3 vote on Sept. 28 approved a 125-foot setback (a 110-foot buffer and a 15-foot setback).
In taking that vote, the council rejected the Ecology Department’s requested change to the council-approved 100-foot buffer in the city’s original Shoreline Master Program (SMP), stating that a 50-foot buffer and 15-foot setback is more consistent with the Edmonds Marsh Category II wetland classification.
The Shoreline Master Program is how the city is required to define, regulate and protect its shorelines, including the Edmonds Marsh. It is currently under review by the Washington State Department of Ecology in accordance with the State Growth Management Act.
In his letter, dated Oct. 21 but released to the media on Monday, Oct. 24, Earling said he agreed with Ecology’s assessment, citing concerns that the council’s alternative for a 125-foot total setback “fails to recognize existing conditions and results in a buffer only on paper.”
“It is more likely to act as a disincentive to redevelopment and enhancement opportunities and thus perpetuate the status quo,” Earling wrote.
In an announcement accompanying the letter’s release on Monday, Earling said that the Ecology’s proposed requirement for a 50-foot vegetative buffer with a 15-foot additional building setback “is much greater than existing setbacks along much of the marsh’s perimeter.” The 65-foot setback “will allow for reasonable development that will trigger much sought-after buffer and habitat enhancements around the marsh,” the announcement said.
In his letter to Bellon, Earling said that under the 65-foot setback, “any redevelopment would be required to significantly enhance the marsh environment, not only through a vegetated buffer but also through improved stormwater management. This is a real world solution to protecting and improving our valuable marsh.”
The Sept. 28 council vote for the wider buffer was supported by Council President Kristiana Johnson and Councilmembers Diane Buckshnis, Adrienne Fraley-Monillas and Mike Nelson. Opposing the measure were Councilmembers Neil Tibbott, Tom Mesaros and Dave Teitzel.
Like Earling, those councilmembers opposing the wider buffer had argued that it would not ensure better protection for the marsh, because it would limit what the Port of Edmonds — which owns the property next to marsh — could accomplish by making marsh improvements through redevelopment.
Rsponding to the mayor’s decision, Councilmember Mike Nelson said that 110-foot buffers are “supported by the best available science from Ecology’s own 2016 guidelines. These protective buffers are in the best interest of our marsh, the best interest for economic development, and the best interest for the people of Edmonds and its future generations,” Nelson said.
“The real world has cut the marsh down to half its size and it is one of the few remaining estuary wetlands left in the entire Puget Sound,” Nelson added. “I believe our neighbors can successfully develop and thrive outside the marsh’s protective buffers supported by council.”
Buckshnis, a long-time supporter of the wider marsh buffer, said that Earling’s position doesn’t come as a surprise, as the mayor had already notified some councilmembers he was not willing to accept the council’s decision.
“As legislators, we must rely on governing laws, guidelines and rules to provide justification for our decisions,” Buckshnis said. “Someone has to speak on behalf of the environment and as I have said many times before, I am willing to take that responsibility.”
Fraley-Monillas intimated that the lesser buffer “was suggested by Ecology after discussions with the Port of Edmonds.”
“Unfortunately it appears the port and others that might have received greater economic value from the denigration of our environment is still in opposition to this well-crafted code,” she added.
The councilmembers who voted for the wider buffer “believe this will create the greatest environmental and economic impact for the citizens,” Fraley-Monillas said.
Council President Kristiana Johnson said she was “very disappointed” by the mayor’s letter, stating that Earling “used the power of his office to represent his personal views.”
The fact the mayor sent his letter two days after the city’s official letter, which Johnson signed on behalf of the city council, “serves to confuse and denigrate the city council’s action regarding the marsh buffers,” Johnson said.
“I am very disappointed with the Mayor and the way he chose to undermine the work of the City Council in his letter to the DOE,” Johnson continued. “His process was neither open nor transparent. He blindsided the city council. His letter was an egregious interference with the city’s legislative process, in my opinion.”
The next step is for Ecology Department Director Bellon to issue a final ruling after reviewing the city’s response, which was included in a letter that the council approved Oct. 19.
— By Teresa Wippel