In comments to state, Port of Edmonds takes stand against increasing Harbor Square buffers

The Edmonds Marsh remains at the center of the controversy over proposed increases to surrounding buffers and setbacks, which would restrict development at Harbor Square. (Photo by Larry Vogel)
The Edmonds Marsh remains at the center of the controversy over proposed increases to surrounding buffers and setbacks, which would restrict development at the adjacent Port-owned Harbor Square business complex. (Photo by Larry Vogel)

As the deadline nears for comments on an update to the Edmonds Shoreline Management Program, the Port of Edmonds reiterated Friday that it is strongly opposed to a City of Edmonds proposal to increase the size of setbacks and buffers around the Edmonds Marsh, located adjacent to the port-owned and -managed Harbor Square business complex.

“From the port’s perspective, expanded buffers/setbacks will likely foreclose any chance of redevelopment at Harbor Square,” Port of Edmonds Executive Director Bob McChesney said in a written statement to My Edmonds News. “It will choke off a potential new source of public revenue that would contribute additional funding for marsh restoration and daylighting Willow Creek. We think this is not a wise choice.”

You can see the entire Port of Edmonds statement here.

Proposed changes to the setbacks and buffers are part of a major update to the Edmonds Shoreline Management Program (SMP) that the City of Edmonds submitted to the State Department of Ecology (DOE) in December 2014. The DOE is reviewing the proposal, and is expected to render a decision by the end of June.

An important part of the DOE review is soliciting and considering public comment. The comment period closes on Friday, March 27. Instructions for submitting comments can be found here.

This update is required by the Washington State Shoreline Management Act. Passed in 1972 by the Washington State Legislature, the act protects shoreline natural resources by imposing a set of guidelines and regulations regarding use, protection and development of these sensitive areas. Part of this is a mandate that municipalities and local governments come up with detailed plans for how to protect shoreline areas within their jurisdictions, and to update these plans at regular intervals.

Submitted in December 2014, Edmonds’ Shoreline Management Program update is the product of many months of work by city staff, the Edmonds Planning Board and others. This work produced hundreds of pages of biological, ecological, historical, geologic and hydrologic documentation, and covers shoreline areas around Puget Sound, Lake Ballinger and the Edmonds Marsh.

Proposed changes to the setback and buffer requirements around the Edmonds Marsh are among the more controversial aspects of the update. The current 25-foot shore setback essentially precludes building or otherwise disturbing any land within 25 feet of the ordinary high water mark surrounding the marsh.

The new proposal clarifies the shore setback by splitting it into two new categories of protected areas: a “buffer” which is considered part of the natural habitat of the protected area, and a “setback” (which includes the buffer) within which no construction is permitted.

The buffer would be managed as a vegetated area consistent with the marsh ecosystem, while the setback creates additional separation from activities that could degrade runoff quality, including introduction of chemicals or particulates into the march. The plan update submitted to the state ecology department proposes a 50-foot buffer and a 100-foot setback, meaning that construction or other such activity could not happen within 100 feet of the marsh.

These and the other proposed provisions of the update were discussed by the Edmonds City Council last September (at that time the proposal called for a 150-foot setback, which was later reduced to 100 feet in the proposal submitted to DOE). The council listened to presentations by city staff, the planning board and others, and heard much public comment.

Then-Port Commission President Jim Orvis was particularly adamant about the setback and buffer proposals, testifying that “there is no scientific basis to support the expanded setbacks,” and that it amounts to “an arbitrary taking of property rights.” Read the complete coverage of that meeting here

Key to the port’s rationale was and continues to be the “no net loss” provision in the 1972 Shoreline Management Act. It states that “updated shoreline master programs must include provisions to ensure that expansion, redevelopment, and replacement of existing structures will result in no net loss of the ecological function of the shoreline.”

The Port of Edmonds maintains that keeping the current 25-foot setback would retain the existing condition and hence result in no net loss, while council and city staff argue that the proposed larger setbacks would allow further restoration and thereby provide for a net gain.

Complicating this issue are new funding guidelines adopted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which make 100-foot setbacks a prerequisite for certain federal pass-through grants to fund habitat enhancement and restoration in wetland areas. This means that in order to get funding from federal grants and loans, any project must maintain 100-foot setbacks from critical areas, designated wetlands and shorelines. (The Edmonds Marsh falls under both the wetlands and shorelines categories).

Smaller setbacks would render Edmonds ineligible for funds that proponents of increased setbacks argue could make the critical difference for moving forward with habitat enhancement projects. The full explanation of these funding guidelines is available here .

In addition, in recognition of the influence of tidal activity in the marsh, the proposed updates would re-designate the Edmonds Marsh area as “shoreline” rather than its current designation as “associated wetland.” If approved by DOE, this would have the effect of designating upland areas within 200 feet of the ordinary high water mark as “shoreline jurisdiction,” which means they would fall under the provisions of the Shoreline Master Program.

 Urban Mixed Use IV buffer setbacks - This map shows the proposed boundaries of buffers, setbacks and the Shoreline jurisdictional area surrounding the Edmonds Marsh as contained in the SMP proposal now before the State Department of Ecology.  The 50-foot buffer zone is a vegetated area that would be managed as an integral part of the natural habitat of the Marsh.  The 100-foot setback defines the area within which no development could take place.  The 200-foot Shoreline jurisdictional boundary reflects the proposal in the SMP update to designate of the Marsh as "shoreline" rather than its current designation as "associated wetland."  If designated as "shoreline," the provisions of the SMP would apply to surrounding upland areas within 200 feet of the ordinary high water mark, the Shoreline Jurisdictional area.  Under the current designation, these do not apply.

This map shows the proposed boundaries of buffers, setbacks and the Shoreline jurisdictional area surrounding the Edmonds Marsh as contained in the Shoreline Master Program (SMP) proposal now before the State Department of Ecology. The 50-foot buffer zone is a vegetated area that would be managed as an integral part of the natural habitat of the Marsh. The 100-foot setback defines the area within which no development could take place. The 200-foot Shoreline jurisdictional boundary reflects the proposal in the SMP update to designate the marsh as “shoreline” rather than its current designation as “associated wetland.”

In a last-minute change to the Shoreline Master Program update proposal, late last year the Edmonds City Council created a new, two-year interim zoning designation, Urban Mixed Use IV, which would apply only to Harbor Square and the old Union/Unocal site. This is similar to the Urban Mixed Use III designation previously proposed by the Edmonds Planning Board as part of a Port of Edmonds plan to redevelop Harbor Square. However, unlike that plan, Urban Mixed Use IV does not allow residential development, which would eliminate this as an option.

In McChesney’s statement, which summarized the Port of Edmonds’ comments to the Department of Ecology, McChesney stressed that the Port “fully supports the goal of restoring the Edmonds Marsh and daylighting Willow Creek, and that it believes that “the most cost effective path for accomplishing those outcomes is through redevelopment at Harbor Square.”

The port maintains that “redevelopment and restoration are not mutually exclusive,” and sees development as a path to “providing a pool of mitigation funds without which…other funding sources will not be sufficient to achieve the desired environmental restoration,” the statement said.

Following the March 27 comment deadline, the ecology department has 15 days to compile and return them to the City of Edmonds, which will then have 45 days to prepare and submit its response. The DOE then has an additional 30 days to render its decision, which means it will be announced around the end of June. (Full details on the approval process are available here.)

— By Larry Vogel





23 Replies to “In comments to state, Port of Edmonds takes stand against increasing Harbor Square buffers”

  1. Lets develop, develop, develop. Cut down every damn tree and put in high rises, lets squeeze every dollar out of the land that we can.


  2. I believe that the Washington State Department of Ecology has increased the minimum requirements for riparian buffers to protect and restore salmon fisheries and achieve water quality standards.

    The minimum buffer size for surface waters (on each side) must be 100′ for perennial, intermittent and ephemeral waters that are identified as being accessed or were historically accessed by anadromous or ESA listed fish species.

    A possible problem with the Edmonds SMP is that the vegetated buffer is only 50′. That vegetated buffer may need to be 100’ minimum.


    1. We were at the marsh not too long ago taking photographs and did notice that someone (and we assumed it appeared that this was clearly from one of the businesses there) had dumped into the marsh some really bad stuff……Just an indication of surrounding business/people or someones regard/disregard for this fragile ecosystem.

      I cant remember if I took a photograph of it (good chance I did), but I will check through my images to see if I did, for documentation.

      Thinking along the lines of how some people need to be educated about this and the very important issue of buffers


      1. Tere- Thanks to you and all the other folks for keeping an eye out on the marsh! I would like to see the photos you took. It is possible what you’re seeing is not exactly dumping (unless it was obvious piles of trash), but stormwater runoff that goes directly into the marsh from Harbor Square…untreated. There are three stormwater outfalls from the Harbor Square parking lot that drain into the northern edge of the marsh. Edmonds does not have a combined sewer outfall (CSO), which means stromwater does not get pumped to the water treatment plant for treatment the way sewage does before it is discharged into Puget Sound. Our only options right now in our community are to find natural treatment called low-impact development (LID) methods of treating stormwater- LID includes things like rain gardens and bioswales. Unfortunately, the current footprint of development at Harbor Square doesn’t include any LID features like this, so the rainwater sheets across the pavement towards the storm drains in the parking lots where it picks up all the debris, micro-plastics, oil, copper brake flakes from our vehicles and takes it right along for the ride directly into the marsh. So- let’s have a creative community discussion about how we fix that! What do you think?


        1. By what was there, this was clearly dumping of something that appeared to be from a business there. This was quite obvious……perhaps a business tending things at a business there….I dont know…..just surprised this showed up. Will look for pictures as soon as I get a chance……I have to go through a lot of images

          Yes, we need to make sure the community understands the importance of taking care of this marsh or any waters …… no old school dumping…..

          Thank you so much for all you have done and are doing, Keeley. I think we have a committed to the environment community here and should be able to fix anything that may come up. In fact, I believe our most important asset here is our environment……..

          People around the world believe and say,” Life is a beach” for a reason


        2. Did you report this illegal dumping to the proper authorities? What made it obvious that it was from a business @ Harbor Square? If you have a picture, they may be able to identify who dumped it.


  3. Another concern with the Edmonds SMP is good old “buffer averaging”. I don’t see any discussion of public notice or public hearing in the following from page 41 of 160:

    Wetland Buffer Width Averaging. The director may allow modification of a standard buffer width in accordance with an approved critical areas report and the best available science on a case-by-case basis by averaging buffer widths. Only those portions of a wetland buffer existing with the project area or subject parcel shall be considered for buffer averaging. Averaging of buffer widths may only be allowed where a qualified professional wetland scientist demonstrates that:

    i. It will not reduce the function and value of wetlands or associated buffers;

    ii. The wetland contains variations in sensitivity due to existing physical characteristics or the character of the buffer varies in slope, soils, or vegetation, and the wetland would benefit from a wider buffer in places and would not by adversely impacted by narrower buffer in other places;

    iii. The total area contained in the buffer area, or the total buffer area existing on a subject parcel for wetland extending off-site, after averaging is no less than that which would be contained within a standard buffer; and

    iv. The buffer width at any single location is not reduced to less than 25 percent of the standard buffer width.


  4. It is quite astounding that this many years later after destroying about fifty percent of this important ecosystem and marsh for short term profit for a few businesses, an ecosystem for the land and beings, there are still developers trying to develop and make money by destroying AGAIN an extremely important area ecosystem…….Interesting that we were not surprised regarding comments by the port in support of redevelopment for business purposes again…..

    I say let’s not make a deal with the devil as the saying goes. We know so much more about ecosystems now and how incredibly FRAGILE they are…….We dont need developers deciding whats important HERE and profit and money seems to be that first priority as many years ago it was and much disappeared……..We already know what we need to fix here……and that is, a very IMPORTANT regional ecosystem here.


    1. Tere- again, thanks for your commitment to protecting our most natural asset in Edmonds! I’ll share some info we recently found out about our marsh’s history. During the recent feasibility study looking at the possibility of reconnecting a creek channel between the marsh and the Sound (referred to as daylighting the creek), the engineering consultants found evidence that Edmonds Marsh was historically about 100 acres- larger than we originally thought. It is hard to know for sure, because precise measurements were not taken or not recorded back in the early 1800’s before any marsh filling occurred. The current marsh is 27 acres, so we have lost over 2/3 of the marsh through the years of Edmonds development and expansion.

      That said, something needs to be done at Harbor Square. The current footprint of development is having an impact on the marsh. There is no stormwater filtration on the site. The existing vegetated buffer (the narrow strip of riparian area around the north edge of the marsh) sits higher than the storm drains in the parking lot, so it’s not helping filter any stormwater. A thoughtful, sustainable redevelopment of the area could address the issue. What else could we do? I’d like to see our community get creative here. Harbor Square could be something much more than it is now. How can our community redefine development? Does our built environment and our natural environment need to be exclusive of one another? How do we make them inclusive? How do we shift what development means for us, especially near sensitive habitats?


      1. I agree, Keeley. Harbor Square AND the MARSH could be a gathering place for many to come and see what can really be accomplished when best up to date science is put first and not best business put first. I am not saying that business is not important. We have seen “business” put first here and that is why we have so much of the marsh destroyed. Yes, “thoughtful, sustainable” redevelopment but best science up to date means following the guildines of what IS best science. Of course, business is of importance here, but the idea is to bring back something that was destroyed by asphalt, cars, etc…….

        I fully believe many, many more people would come to Harbor Square to enjoy something that very few areas have with their environments. I’ve spoke to many people that don’t even know this incredibly beautiful marsh exists behind those buildings. This obviously would be good for businesses there. particularily businesses that want to be introduced to younger generations that put the environment in high esteem and would come to be a part of this. Many people around the world are working together with innovative business entities to bring back these once thought destroyed areas. There are lots of creative ideas out there…..Some quite simple

        I keep reading over and over, the key is working with nature, not against it…………….I believe it is Holland that has really CREATIVE architects and engineers that started building buildings with pass throughs underneath buildings for NATURAL water that is there already in the environment to continue its natural flow…….They are not trying to STOP the nature of the water anymore……Working with nature! rather than building the dykes……..Kind of like our seawalls of cement are not natural……..


  5. I seem to remember getting large, shiny postcards in our mailboxes about a week after we got our new Mayor Mr. Earling, with pictures of many, many new tall structures to be developed at Harbor Square, just a few years ago ……It looks like a few short years later this development is put out there again……and again even after all that everybody KNOWS about the fragility of the marsh and ecosystem developers want to develop regardless. This is not good for our city and doesnt seem to be supporting the future of our young people and children who know the environment is first and most important. Destroying areas such as this is old school. I might add that this area was developed about a short 30 years ago… should we just let a few repeatedly make money here? Edmonds doesnt need this.


  6. An abstract of a Native American saying: …Every single action or decision human beings make is actually a moral one….Selfish behavior is ultimately destructive for both self and society.

    Those who make decisions for Edmonds should keep this in mind and so should every single one of us. Words to live by.


  7. face it, EVERYTHING in the Global Economy first and foremost comes down to . . . $Money$

    the damage to all life is completely irrelevant – unless someone is able to come up with the $Money$

    perhaps it’s time to charge all the critters, a property tax!

    if they can’t pay, find other critters that can . . . 🙂


  8. Harbor Square, back to the drawing board. It was shouted down pretty well a couple of years ago but now they want to keep their options open to what? Make money$$$. The ecosystem of the marsh is so much more important than the Port making more money by trying to keep their dream of high rise (for Edmonds) development. I agree with Irwin Buchholz, Kirklandizing Edmonds is not a good idea. Let’s not lose the charm of this warm wonderful city.


  9. I encourage all that have reverence, respect , love and concern for our land, wildlife and environment here and those that do not want to see more destruction by the short sightedness (“in squeezing every last dollar out of the land”) of those only interested again in monetary profit and short, short sighted gain for a select few,

    to contact the following with your comments

    David Pater
    Shoreline and Environmental Assistance Program
    Washington Dept of Ecology
    NW Regional Office
    3190 160th Avenue S.E.
    Bellevue, Wa. 98008 5452

    or email

    or phone


    It is the responsibility of all those who recognize the importance of our environment for future generations and all of us. If we cannot save this a second time around, I say we give this land back to our Native Americans who do KNOW how to take CARE and LIVE with the land!


  10. Assuming the 50 ft buffer is to protect the wetland, what is the additional 50ft for? Is it best described as a buffer on a buffer? And should we include a buffer on a buffer on a buffer etc?


  11. Hopefully the following helps….it may cause more confusion…

    From Ecology’s SMP Handbook (I added the all caps):

    Distinguishing between buffers and setbacks.

    The terms “buffers” and “setbacks” are often used interchangeably in shoreline documents, including Shoreline Master Programs. Ecology prefers to DISTINGUISH between the two, as described below.

    Shoreline buffers typically are naturally vegetated areas adjacent to water bodies that protect the ecological functions of the shoreline and help to reduce the impacts of land uses on the water body, as described in the scientific literature. Buffers provide a transition between the aquatic and upland areas. Buffers are generally recognized as a “separation zone” between a water body and a land use activity (e.g., timber harvest, commercial or residential development) to protect ecological processes, structures, and functions and mitigate the threat of a coastal hazard on human infrastructures (National Wildlife Federation 2007, referenced in Protection of Marine Riparian Functions in Puget Sound, Washington, June 2009.)

    Shoreline buffers can help to protect structures from hazards such as erosion, landslides, floods, and storm damage associated with a water body. Ideally, shoreline buffers are relatively undisturbed; uses are limited, and there are no substantial structures. A typical use is a trail leading to the water or a stairway leading down to a dock or the beach.

    Shoreline setbacks are the distances separating two features such as a structure and the water, or a structure and the buffer. Natural native vegetation may or may not exist within a setback. A setback from a buffer protects the buffer from the impacts related to use of the structure, such as maintenance of a house.

    Setbacks also help to assure that development is located a safe distance from bluffs, river banks, and other natural features, including buffers. Setbacks help to protect views by requiring nearby residences to be a certain distance from the water. Setbacks are measured from the landward edge of a shoreline buffer or the OHWM, or in certain circumstances, from the top of a steep bank or unstable slope. Major structures cannot be built, but some uses such as gardens or sheds may be allowed within the setback.

    Some local governments with intensely developed shorelines have established only setbacks from the OHWM. Vegetation conservation is required, and planting new vegetation, replacing noxious weeds and invasive plants with native plants, and other habitat improvements are required for new or expanded development. These measures meet the requirements of the SMP Guidelines to protect ecological functions, as buffers do.

    Together, buffers and setbacks protect shoreline ecological functions, provide aesthetic qualities, including views of the land from the water, and protect structures from hazards. Buffers and setbacks also provide space between development and natural shoreline processes, helping to protect structures over the long term from hazards such as wave action, flooding, erosion, and bank sloughing, lessening the need for shoreline stabilization such as bulkheads.


  12. The Port of Edmonds April 27, 2015 Meeting Minutes include the following:

    Mr. McChesney advised that he is currently monitoring the City of Edmonds Shoreline Management Program, which is currently being reviewed by the Department of Ecology (DOE). He noted that the public comment period has closed, and the DOE has collated the comments and forwarded them to the City of Edmonds. The City has until May 28th to respond to each of the comments and questions. At that time, the Port will have some clarity as to what their next steps will be. He said he would continue to monitor the process closely.

    May 28th was yesterday. Has the City announced a request for additional time to respond to the comments and questions?


  13. Apparently the City of Edmonds was granted a two week extension to complete the responses to public comments. As such, even though the public comment period closed way back on March 27th, the due date for the City’s comment responses was moved to June 11th. I wonder if the City’s responses were made by June 11th.

    The State Department of Ecology’s website states the following:

    “A summary of comments will be posted here a few weeks after the comment period closes. We will also post the City of Edmond’s response to comments and a notice of Ecology’s decision when they become available. Please check back.”

    Hopefully that summary as well as the City of Edmond’s response to the comments will be posted soon. The responses must be available to post, assuming the City made the responses by June 11th.


  14. Yes, we have been looking for the City of Edmonds response since the 11th to no avail.

    We have figured out that all that care about our fragile environment here need to pay very close attention to what unfolds here regarding our environment and our government.


  15. Why don’t we build a big honkin’ wind farm in the marsh so that Edmonds can point at the windmills with pride as proof of our commitment to the planet and sustainability??


  16. It is good to see that we have MANY here that want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem. Enlightened and educated people around our world are trying to be part of the solution, not the problem!!

    This cannot be emphasized enough as we have generations behind us (following us) that inherit the environment that we have either supported or DESTROYED. They GET whatever we leave them, so let’s not take more chances with this. WE are the WORLD!!! that we live in…….Literally “llive in”. …..LIVE being a key word here.


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