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County works to address unpermitted work on the shore
By NATALIE MARTIN
Dozens of Vashon homeowners flagged in a recent King County survey may be required to seek construction permits for shoreline work they completed or to remove shoreline structures.
Earlier this month 70 shoreline homeowners received letters from the county’s Department of Natural Resources and Parks (DNRP) explaining that their properties were identified as having had shoreline changes in the last decade that could require a permit, such as the installation of new bulkheads, bulkhead repairs or the construction of docks, stairs or other structures. The letter asks the homeowners to contact the county’s Department of Permitting and Environmental Review (DPER) to discuss what’s been done at their property and determine the next steps.
Jim Chan, DPER’s director of permitting, said that while doing unpermitted construction is against the law, DPER officials plan to work with the identified homeowners and no one will face fines unless they refuse to comply with the effort.
“It’s really set up to encourage people to comply with the code,” said Randy Sandin, another DPER official involved in the effort. “That’s why you don’t impose civil penalties from the outset. You give them reasonable opportunity to comply.”
As of last week, 25 people who received letters had contacted DPER.
“Most everyone who has called us has been very cooperative, willing to invite us out, to talk to us and give us more explanation,” Chan said.
Traditionally the county’s permitting department has only gone after unpermitted construction when citizen complaints are filed, something that can be rare on the back roads and perimeters of the island. However, the department’s latest effort stems from an environmental survey that was recently completed.
A recent study of the marine shoreline of King County found that despite large restoration projects undertaken in recent years, shoreline construction has outpaced those efforts. As a result, there has been an overall loss of natural shoreline in an area known as Water Resource Inventory Area 9 (WRIA 9), which includes Vashon and Maury islands, prompting concern among officials and activists who say the already sparse natural shoreline is important habitat for salmon and other creatures and is vital to maintaining the health of Puget Sound.
As part of the study, researchers compared current aerial and boat-based photos of the shore to those taken before 2005, identifying changes that had taken place. Of the 93 changes identified on the coast of Vashon and Maury, only eight of them had been permitted by King County.
Chan explained that DPER will now investigate each case as the homeowners contact them and it’s likely that some changes, such as minor bulkhead repairs, will be minimal enough to not require permits. In a few cases the county may have been mistaken in what they saw. And it’s also likely, Chan said, that some of the homes have changed hands since the unpermitted changes were made, though the current owners will still be required to obtain any required permits.
Can said it is too soon to know how many people will have to seek permits or how many people will have to remove items they constructed.
“The opportunity for us to contact them and do deeper observation is good,” he said. “We’ve just begun to look more in depth, and we’re doing some field visits.”
In a few weeks the county will send another round of letters to those who didn’t respond, this time listing a deadline to get in touch with DPER. Those who still don’t respond could ultimately face fines and legal action. A final step will be abatement action, meaning “we would go out and take care of it and charge them for it,” Chan said.
Of the 70 homeowners who received letters, apparently only half are Vashon residents. According to a list of identified homes, 31 people have Vashon addresses listed for tax purposes, while 19 have Seattle addresses and the rest have addresses in other cities or states.
A large number of the changes involve bulkheads. According to the document, the county believes 30 of the identified homeowners completed major or minor bulkhead repairs, while seven installed new bulkheads or retaining walls. About 20 people were identified as having installed new docks, stairs ramps or other structures. And two homes — one on Glen Acres Road and one on Dolphin Point Trail — were flagged as being built entirely without permits.
Chan said he believes ultimately most people will be able to obtain construction permits for any work they did, although they’ll have to go through what can sometimes be a lengthy permitting process and pay for any permits they should have obtained before.
Some who installed shoreline structures that couldn’t have been permitted in the first place, such as some docks, will likely have to modify or completely remove the items, Chan said.
“Things actually in the water, floating docks, piers, or things like that, we wouldn’t be able to permit,” he said.
In addition, 10 people apparently cleared vegetation on the shoreline or bluff, something that is rarely permitted by the county. Those homeowners, Chan said, could be asked to plant new plants to make up for it.
“They need to give us a plan of how they would restore it,” he said.
John Taylor, an assistant director with DNRP’s Water and Land Resources Division, said he believes the effort is about more than construction permits, as the issue underscores the need for more outreach and education about shoreline construction. In recent years, scientists have discovered more about the negative impact bulkheads and other shoreline construction can have on the beach, something Taylor said many people still don’t understand.
“We believe it’s equally important to continue to educate people about the value of shoreline resources and protecting shoreline resources,” he said.
The letter sent to homeowners noted that Greg Rabourn, Vashon’s basin steward, will be available to answer questions related to the environment and invited recipients to attend a shoreline homeowners’ workshop last weekend. Taylor noted that under a funding proposal in the works at the King Conservation District, even more money would be dedicated to education and outreach, likely resulting in more outreach and workshops on Vashon.
Chan said that when homeowners seek permits for shoreline work, DPER takes the environment into account, and 60 to 70 percent of the time asks that plans be altered in order to protect beach habitat.
“Sometimes it may not be as large as he wanted or in the location he wanted, but he would be able to get something,” Chan said. “We do look at best management practices.”
Three Vashon residents who received letters from King County were reached by The Beachcomber. They said they didn’t believe the work they did at their property required a permit and they hoped to work with the county to resolve the issue, but they declined to be quoted in the