Sammamish City Council hears about wetland regulations
March 19, 2013
By Ari Cetron
New: March 19, 11:22 a.m.
The City Council dove into the swamp of wetland regulations and whether or not people should be able to fill parts of some of them.
If the council eventually approves regulations proposed by the Planning Commission, it could allow property owners the opportunity to more easily build on property with a wetland. Some question the impact that it could have on the environment as a whole.
As part of discussion of the Environmentally Critical Areas ordinance March 12, the council got into the sometimes-murky area of building near wetlands.
There are two larger changes the Planning Commission calls for when it comes to building near wetlands, both make it easier to build.
Current regulations start to impose restrictions when a wetland is 1,000 square feet or larger.
The first change involves non-isolated wetlands, meaning wetlands that are somehow connected to either other wetlands or other bodies of water. In the case of such wetlands, if they are smaller than 4,000 square feet (about a tenth of an acre) and judged to have a low value as animal habitat, property owners could build closer to the wetland. Current regulations would allow someone to build no closer than 65 feet to these wetlands, the new regulations would allow building as close as 30 feet.
The other change applies to isolated wetlands, also of 4,000 square feet or fewer and having a low value as habitat. In this case, a property owner would be permitted to fill in up to 2,500 square feet of that wetland, as long as they then created a new wetland of the same size somewhere else, as close as possible to the one being removed.
The new plans, said Community Development Director Kamuron Gurol, would allow more wetlands to be developed, but it would specify that they have lower value. It also increases the requirements for reducing the impacts of the development.
Councilwoman Nancy Whitten was quick to ask why the animal habitat was the only consideration in determining the value of a wetland.
“I have a lot of concerns with this approach,” she said.
She argued the amount of water a wetland holds, and the quality of that water should also have value. By filling in the wetland, even if it is isolated, there will be water-related issues.
“We’re going to create surface water that has to go someplace,” she said.
And while city standards might require builders to find some way of dealing with the volume of water, the city does nothing to address the pollution that might be in that water.
“Water quality is a huge issue,” Whitten said. “Don’t make it just about habitat.”
In practice, there is now only one identified wetland within Sammamish that would be impacted by these rules, the Gee property near Beaver Lake. But, Evan Maxim, senior planner for the city, cautioned that there has been no wide ranging survey attempting to identify them.
“As far as we know, there’s one. There may be a lot more. There may be no more,” he said.
- The new code calls for specifically defining a “wetland Mosaic” in the city code. In the cases where wetlands are tightly clustered, builders are supposed to treat them as a single entity. State law already regulates these, but the Planning Commission thought it worth drawing attention to it in the city code as well, so property owners aren’t surprised.
- The new code calls for regulating phosphorus generation on new development, and redevelopment in areas around Pine and Beaver lakes. The old code was only focused on new development.
- The new code would eliminate buffers which forbid building to the side of a steep slope. Construction would still be prohibited at the top and bottom of the slope.
- New regulations would give specific criteria for when it is safe to build near a steep slope.
- New regulations will provide functional criteria for when to increase or decrease the buffer near a body of water. City staff has only once increased such a buffer, Maxim said, in the case of Mystic Lake when it went from 200 to 215 feet.
The City Council will continue to discuss parts of the ordinance for the next few weeks before holding a formal public hearing.
To review the documents related to the Environmentally Critical Areas ordinance (and there are a lot of them) visit the city website ci.sammamish.wa.us, and follow the link on the left side for “Environmentally Critical Areas.”
Send comments or questions to ECA@ci.sammamish.wa.us.
What is going on?
The City Council is discussing a set of regulations, known at the Environmentally Critical Areas update. The city is finishing a review of the regulations, which the state mandates take place every seven years. These proposed rules govern how development can take place in ecologically sensitive areas, such as steep slopes or near streams and wetlands. About three-fourths of the city falls under one part of the regulations or another. For most homeowners, however, there is little or no direct impact to their properties. They might come into play if a person wants to enlarge their home or build a large shed, but generally, the rules will apply to new construction.
The Planning Commission studied the package of proposed regulations for more than a year. They developed regulations that often allow “flexibility” when building.
The “flexibility” can take many forms but generally allows the property owners ways to build in areas that might now be off limits because of environmental concerns.
What’s the problem with building near water?
There are a host of reasons putting in a building near a body of water requires extra care, but there are two major problems.
One is that it can cause additional pollution. Water falling from rainstorms, which finds its way into streams, carries with it parts of what it touches. So, the drip of oil or antifreeze on a driveway, extra fertilizer from a lawn, or the little presents dogs leave in the backyard end up finding their way into the streams and lakes, bringing with them all sorts of unpleasant chemicals.
The other is the volume of the water. Building a house or driveway covers a portion of the ground that would have absorbed some water. Now that extra water, if not treated properly, would find its way to nearby streams. Since the stream would suddenly have more water than usual, it can cause a cascade of other problems. In some cases, it can lead to flooding. In others it can make the water in the stream move more swiftly, increasing the erosion of the streambed and making the water dirtier.
It is possible to reduce some of these impacts. Much of the environmental regulations under consideration deal with how much of a reduction should be expected of a property owner.