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.
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