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County policy on beach access, lake questioned

Karen Stewart, Shoreline Master Program coordinator and Bob Pederson, director of Island County Planning and Community Development, listen as community members share their concerns about the update to the county shoreline regulations.  - Elisabeth Murray
Karen Stewart, Shoreline Master Program coordinator and Bob Pederson, director of Island County Planning and Community Development, listen as community members share their concerns about the update to the county shoreline regulations.
— image credit: Elisabeth Murray

The future of additional public beach access in Island County and salmon restoration at Swan Lake on West Beach Road in Oak Harbor remain uncertain.

On Monday night, the Island County Commissioners heard comments from the public about these topics and other proposed changes in the draft Shoreline Master Program. The meeting was held at the Commissioners Hearing Room in Coupeville.

“Island County is quite unique in that we have 200 miles of shoreline and 40 percent is residential,” said Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson. “We also have a really engaged community that cares greatly about our quality of life and really does want to preserve the beauty and the fragile environment that we have.”

At the same time, those same community members have made a significant private investment along the shoreline, she said.

The goal of the SMP is to foster responsible and appropriate uses while protecting natural resources and providing public access, said Karen Stewart, the SMP coordinator for the county.

However, achieving this can be difficult as people’s desires for shoreline uses may conflict.

According to Stewart, the state now mandates that new shoreline subdivisions with more than five lots must provide public beach access.

Island County has traditionally allowed the waterfront development to form community beaches with “quasi-public” access, she said.

Commissioner Kelly Emerson said that she supports limiting access solely to members in that community, while Commissioner Angie Homola said that she hopes to find a solution for undeveloped properties to allow for beach access.

Price Johnson shared that she would like to expand public beach access “in a more meaningful way than in a tiny corridor.”

“I just don’t know if this is the right vehicle to get us there,” she said.

According to Bob Pederson, the director of Island County Planning and Community Development, maintenance would be the responsibility of the property owner.

Stewart said that the county can consider asking the state’s Department of Ecology to allow community beaches in the new developments rather than follow the state mandate of beach access for all.

Salmon habitat

Several Oak Harbor residents voiced concern about how attempts to restore salmon habitat at Swan Lake could impact their home ownership.

John Brooks of Oak Harbor said he is concerned that removal of the tide gates at this freshwater lake could lead to saltwater intrusion in the nearby property owners’ wells.

“To waste all that fresh water - make that a tidal action - in case some day a juvenile salmon might want to stop for a rest on its way out to the Sound is ridiculous,” Brooks said.

Brooks also said that investing in the salmon project would cost too much money, especially given the condition of the county’s finances.

But Vern Pederson of Oak Harbor challenged the assessment of the lagoon’s salinity and said that the lake is brackish, and at times saltier than the ocean.

He also argued that with the lake’s low-elevation that, “sooner or later, we’re either going to open the lagoon, or mother nature will.”

Homola said that she is very interested in Swan Lake as it is a habitat of local importance, and that “fish friendly replacements should be looked at” when the tide gates are replaced.

According to Bob Pederson, the Swan Lake project is included on a “wish list” of habitat restoration projects that could be done as funding becomes available, but this does not mean that it may ever move forward.

Managing shorelines

The state’s Shoreline Management Act, adopted in 1972, seeks to prevent harm from “uncoordinated and piecemeal development of the state’s shorelines.”

Island County is one of 39 counties in the state required by state law to have a management plan for local shorelines.

The most recent version was approved by Ecology in 2001 and includes many of Whidbey’s freshwater lakes as well.

A successful SMP will reflect the community’s vision for the shoreline, achieve no net loss of shoreline ecological functions, provide permitting predictability for shoreline property owners, and provide economic opportunities and maintain a high quality of life, said Stewart.

The commissioners will hold public hearings before adoption of the updated program.

Questions and comments about the program can be directed to Karen Stewart, Shoreline Master Program coordinator, at k.stewart@co.island.wa.us or 360-678-2348. The draft regulations can be found at islandcounty.net/planning/shorelines.htm.

 

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