Sammamish City Council starts debate on new environmental regulations

June 12, 2013

By Ari Cetron

After more than a year of study, parts of the city’s revised Environmentally Critical Areas Ordinance began to take shape June 4.

The ordinance is a series of regulations governing development in a wide array of ecologically sensitive areas such as near steep slopes or wetlands. The Planning Commission studied the ordinance for more than a year before handing it over to the City Council a few months ago. The commission is recommending a laundry list of changes to the ordinance. The majority of those changes involve adding flexibility to the regulations, which would allow development in areas where it is currently off limits.

The council, after hearing staff reports on details of the plan over the course of multiple meetings, then held a public hearing that stretched over three meetings. That hearing ended June 4 during the council meeting, and the council began its deliberations.

This third hearing featured speakers hitting generally the same notes they’d been discussing during the past two. Property owners who want to develop their land asked for the changes which would allow them to do so. Other opposed the changes saying that the greater good is served by continuing to protect the environment with the regulations.

Before beginning deliberations, Mayor Tom Odell noted the countless opportunities that citizens have had for input. He said that while people may not get the result they want, he hoped they could acknowledge that the process was good.

The council seems likely to focus its energy on 17 amendments proposed by various councilmembers. It tackled some of the less controversial proposals and made decisions on them.

One amendment the council rejected was the use of site-specific stream buffers. City law has areas on either side of a stream where development is forbidden. But the width of these buffers does not take into account other considerations, such as topography or man-made obstacles, which would prevent the water from flowing into the stream. Councilman Don Gerend had proposed allowing buffers to be reduced in cases such as that.

The planning commission, however, had rejected the idea because they found no scientific studies to support the idea.

Councilwoman Nancy Whitten said she liked the concept, but doesn’t think it can be implemented fairly at this time.

“I think it’s a great idea, but I don’t think its time has come,” she said.

Additionally, changing the regulation would create a huge headache for the city in terms of record-keeping, said Community Development Director Kamuron Gurol.

Gurol also said that the buffer is about more than keeping surface water from overloading a stream. Water flows under the surface as well, and that water may not follow the same hills and valleys on the surface. Additionally, he said there is valuable wildlife habitat near streams.

The council rejected the amendment 6-1 with Gerend the sole yes vote.

On a 7-0 vote, the council will forbid allowing “vertical” geothermal shafts to be dug deep into the ground for the purposes of harnessing energy near important water sources. Both of the city’s water districts had asked for this. The fear is that such systems might not be properly maintained and unknown fluids could leak from the system into the water table. This would still allow a different kind of geothermal called “horizontal.”

The council also decided to wait until later to discuss an idea of Gerend’s to classify bogs as a wetland. He said he thought bogs should enjoy extra protections, but did not specify what those protections should be.

The council will continue to consider other parts of the ordinance, including the option to pay money instead of reducing some environmental impacts, changes to the regulations around wetlands and a proposed pilot program to allow development where its now forbidden at future meetings.

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