Ecology Department says OK to wider Edmonds Marsh buffers — with a caveat

From Eric Sonett, the Edmonds Marsh in May 2016.

In a long-awaited decision, the Washington State Department of Ecology said in a Jan. 10 letter it agrees with the Edmonds City Council’s proposal for a wider 110-foot buffer and a 15-foot setback for Edmonds Marsh, although it does call for a site-specific assessment prior to any future development in the Harbor Square area.

The city’s existing Shoreline Master Program, adopted in 2000, does not include any part of the Harbor Square area, but the proposed update submitted to Ecology last fall by the Edmonds City Council does. Ecology had required the City of Edmonds to include this change as part of its Shoreline Master Program update. However, as staff and council began working on the update, controversy arose about the specific width of buffers to be required for the area when development occurs in the marsh area. A portion of the land bordering the marsh is owned by the Port of Edmonds.

The Oct. 10 letter, written by Ecology Director Maia Bellon, noted “the intense community interest and engagement surrounding the Edmonds Marsh” and pointed out that Bellon had personally met with representatives of Friends of the Marsh (supporting a wider buffer) and the Port of Edmonds (supporting a narrower buffer) to hear their perspectives on the issue.

“Ecology understands the importance of preserving and improving the Edmonds Marsh,” Bellon wrote. “However, Ecology is concerned the city’s proposed alternatives must be clarified for consistency with the purpose and intent of Ecology’s original charge. The difficulty remains how to achieve this objective given the surrounding land uses,” she said.

The city council approved its response to Washington State Department of Ecology-required changes during its Oct. 18 meeting, following years of work by city staff, discussion by city council members, and testimony from citizens and Port of Edmonds officials.

The most controversial of the council-approved changes was creating a 110-foot buffer and a 15-foot setback for the Edmonds Marsh. The Ecology Department had recommended changing an earlier council-approved 100-foot buffer in its original SMP to a 50-foot buffer and 15-foot setback, stating it’s more consistent with the Edmonds Marsh Category II wetland classification.

While four councilmembers — Adrienne Fraley-Monillas, Diane Buckshnis, Kristiana Johnson and Mike Nelson — supported the wider buffer and setback, three were opposed. Those three  — Neil Tibbott, Dave Teitzel and Tom Mesaros — wrote a separate letter to the Ecology Department expressing their opposition to the wider buffer, stating they believed it would actually do more harm to the marsh by preventing any type of restoration through redevelopment. Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling also wrote a letter supporting the narrower buffer.

Ecology has asked the city to respond by March 30 to its new letter, and the city council is scheduled to discuss this issue at its Jan. 24 meeting. According to city development services staff, who released an announcement Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 10, regarding Ecology’s letter, two options are offered for providing a more site-specific approach and a scientific study for the Urban IV Mixed Use Area, which includes Harbor Square. Agency staff have noted that the city could choose either of these options or some combination that achieves similar results, the announcement said.

The Save Our Marsh (SOM) group that has supported the wider buffers forwarded a statement noting that the group “is pleased that the Department of of Ecology has agreed to the scientifically-based 110-foot buffer (plus 15-foot setback) for the Marsh.” However, Save Our Marsh said it plans to “closely evaluate” Ecology’s decision to allow an alternate, smaller buffer for proposed development/redevelopment if determined acceptable through a site-specific study.

“A smaller buffer width will have serious consequences for the long-term viability of the Marsh and its wildlife unless it is based on a scientifically valid study,” the statement said. “SOM emphasizes that this study must consider all ecological factors (including wildlife) and be conducted by unbiased contractors.

“Site-specific studies will need to have peer-reviewed scientific methodology and sufficient scientific rigor to ensure that alternate buffer determinations do not result in net loss of Marsh ecological functions. The Edmonds Marsh has already been diminished by development, and unless the remaining marsh area is protected and improved, it will lose its ability to support birds and other wildlife,” Save Our Marsh said.

Port of Edmonds Executive Director Bob McChesney said in a statement that although “we disagree with the results and we still have questions about the process, the Port of Edmonds respects the decision by Ecology to reaffirm the City’s approval of wider buffers around the Edmonds Marsh as part of the Shoreline Master Plan.”

“In our view, nothing has been gained,” McChesney said. “No value will be created, and Harbor Square will likely remain just as it is, unchanged for the foreseeable future. The Port has consistently expressed our desire to work with the city and the community at large to improve the marsh. We have the same goal, but a different strategy.

“The Port believes our redevelopment plan creates the best value for the city in the long run. As a practical reality, redevelopment and restoration work best when they work together. Now, there will be no new resources available to make those improvements to the Marsh. Seems like a lost opportunity for the taxpayers of Edmonds and Woodway. But we can live with it.”

The proposed SMP addresses shoreline areas in Edmonds that extend 5.2 miles along the Puget Sound and also adjacent to Lake Ballinger. It uses updated scientific information to set requirements for future shoreline activities. Development in all shoreline areas would be subject to newer regulations, including for shorelines, environment, and stormwater.

Until an updated SMP is approved and adopted, the 2000 shoreline plan applies, the city announcement said.

You can see the Ecology letter here and more specifics about the department’s proposed alternatives here.

  1. The Dept. of Ecology will be presenting their letter and recommendations at the Edmonds City Council’s January 24th meeting. This should provide citizens of Edmonds that are concerned about the future viability of the Marsh an opportunity to hear the details of what Ecology is recommending. It is unfortunate that the Port of Edmonds’s view is that nothing will change with a wider buffer. They state that “The Port has consistently expressed our desire to work with the city and the community at large to improve the marsh” but they have done little to address the pressing problem of an inadequate vegetated buffer along Harbor Square as identified by the Dept. of Ecology. Why can’t the Port work with the community NOW to begin expanding the vegetated area along the edge of the Marsh by planting trees and native vegetation? That is what is needed to improve the Marsh and conditions for wildlife that utilize the Marsh?

  2. I very much appreciate the effort that the Ecology Department, and especially Director Maia Bellon, has made to resolve this issue. With a site-specific evaluation made by independent researchers and based on best science, we should be on more solid footing. It will take some effort and undoubtedly some money to protect and restore the salt marsh while dealing with other interests, but the long-term gains will, I think, be to everyone’s advantage. Edmonds could become a model for the a city that takes both environmental and economic factors into account to make a truly eco-friendly community.

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