City Council to study Environmentally Critical Areas Ordinance
February 20, 2013
By Caleb Heeringa
Developing property near steep slopes or small wetlands could be a bit easier under changes to the city’s environmental code suggested by the Sammamish Planning Commission.
But it remains to be seen whether the Sammamish City Council will sign on to the recommendations to change the Environmentally Critical Areas Ordinance, the product of more than a year of twice monthly meetings, or get out their red pens and delve into the code themselves.
Kathy Richardson, the commission’s chairwoman, said she felt that the recommendations improve the code – giving property owners more options for using their environmentally constrained property while protecting Sammamish’s streams and wetlands.
“I think we introduced some flexibility to the code that is reasonable and appropriate,” Richardson said in an interview.
The recommendations, presented to the council at a Feb. 12 meeting, include:
- Significantly reducing development limitations around isolated wetlands that are not hydrologically connected to neighboring wetlands and don’t provide significant wildlife habitat. Senior Planner Evan Maxim said the new code redefines what a “small” wetland is. The current code says anything fewer than 1,000 square feet is small, while the new code gives the same designation to anything fewer than than 4,000 square feet. The commission also recommends that the city allow a landowner to fill up to 2,500 square feet of that wetland, up from 1,000 square feet, provided they improve wetlands elsewhere on the property.
- Increasing the ability for a homeowner to develop inside a stream or wetland buffer that is in the “shadow” of an existing building. Richardson gave the example of a landowner who wants to expand the footprint of a home when there is an existing barn or detached garage between the home and stream or wetland. The new code would make that expansion easier, even if the home is expanding into an area inside a buffer.
- Allowing a pilot project of nine developments in “erosion hazard overlay” areas in the city – most commonly located above steep slopes above Lake Sammamish. The program would allow current single family homes to expand provided no additional storm water runs off the property. The program would also allow property owners to subdivide and develop multiple homes on their properties so long as all storm water is collected and routed to the lake or city storm water system. The code would also require tight controls during construction to avoid landslides during large storm events.
- Establishing a “fee-in lieu” mitigation program, which would allow a landowner who is disturbing a wetland or stream buffer to pay for wetland improvements on another nearby property if there are not suitable areas for improvement on their own property.
- Changing the ratios of wetland improvements required. Richardson said in some cases the ratios are larger than current code, meaning a property owner could be required to improve six or eight times as much wetland habitat as their development impacts.
The overall package was approved by the commission on a 6-1 vote, with commissioner Mahbubul Islam in dissent. In a minority report, Islam argues that the so-called “flexibility” will have a negative effect on the environment and is being added for the benefit of a few landowners that had been involved in the process.
“Many of the Commission’s proposed code amendments … simply serve the economic interests of a handful of property owners and thereby cause lasting damage to already degraded critical areas and water quality,” Islam wrote.
Islam argues that the pilot project is not necessary since landowners in the erosion hazard areas are still entitled to reasonable use of their property, which state law has defined as a single family home in the least impactful portion of a property. Aggrieved property owners can also take advantage of transfer of development rights programs that allow them to sell off their development potential to other parties, Islam notes.
Jim Osgood, one of the property owners Islam is referring to, said the program’s strict controls and required use of low-impact development techniques like rain water harvesting and pervious pavement will allow landowners to use their land without harming the environment. Osgood calculates that subdividing his property into 10 or 12 lots will still cost him approximately $250,000 more than it would a similar property outside of the overlay, but said the pilot program can prove that properties located above steep slopes can safely be developed.
“It’s unfortunate that we get labeled as ‘property rights people,’” Osgood said. “We have three hybrid cars.”
Though he voted in favor of the update, commissioner Joe Lipinsky wrote in a minority report that the recommendations “continue the past policy of adopting unreasonable levels of environmental protection at the expense of Sammamish residents whose rights to use their properties are quantifiably harmed.”
Lipinsky questions whether the environmental code is needed at all and argues that the city’s storm water code suffices in protecting the environment. In 2011, the city approved using two sets of storm water regulations – a stricter set of rules based on 2009 science for properties that develop an acre or more and an older set of rules developed in 1998 for properties smaller than an acre.
Councilwoman Nancy Whitten questioned Richardson on the idea of a pilot project for properties near steep slopes and what would happen if there were a large rain and landslide event in the middle of a project.
“What happens if we have a worst-case-scenario outcome and it’s too late and the houses have been built?” she asked.
Richardson said the limited scope of the project and strict monitoring requirements will allow the city to stop any similar development if things don’t go well.
“(Lake Sammamish) is a large lake and the impact of a small number of developments on a large lake is much less than several developments on a large lake,” Richardson said. “Allowing (development) would create a risk – It’s just a question of how much risk (the council) thinks is acceptable.”
The council is scheduled to consider the regulations this spring.