At a meeting last week, officials from the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks discussed how tackling sea level rise on Vashon relates to the county’s effort to update its 2020 comprehensive plan guiding land use.
The county is proposing new development regulations that would limit construction in areas at risk of flooding. The updated code would also set conditions for digging wells in floodplains, increase the setback for building structures on bluffs, and prohibit some bulkhead projects that would cost more than moving the structures above them.
While some islanders asked if the updates were progressive enough, others in attendance argued that the county should simplify the process of obtaining permits for construction or bulkhead maintenance before the regulations are adopted by the King County Council next summer.
A second public meeting about other proposed changes to the comprehensive plan that would affect the island will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. next Thursday, July 18 at Vashon High School.
Laura Whitely Binder, a climate preparedness specialist, said at the meeting that sea level rise caused by the melting of glaciers, ice caps and ice sheets as a result of warming temperatures will be one of the many impacts of climate change facing the county in the decades ahead. According to projections from a report published last year by Washington Sea Grant and the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group, the sea level will climb 1.5 feet higher or more by 2100 if greenhouse gas emissions are not curbed. She pointed to the growing number of severe flooding events in the state as an indication that climate change already demands a response in Washington state.
“When we have these events, these are reminders that sea level rise does affect us, and the choices we make about how we plan and design our infrastructure in Washington will go a long way [toward] influencing how we will be able to respond to sea level rise,” she said.
According to Whitely Binder, some of the primary effects of sea level rise include more coastal flooding, permanent inundation of low lying areas, increased shoreline and bluff erosion, a higher likelihood of saltwater intrusion in groundwater, and habitat loss.
“The choices we make today really influence our vulnerability to sea level rise moving forward,” she said.
Jim Simmonds, environmental programs managing supervisor, said the draft of the comprehensive plan update is meant to implement changes that guard property, public health and safety from the risk of sea level rise.
“What we’re trying to do is come up with some initial fixes where we say, ‘if we do it, let’s just do it well so we’re not just putting ourselves in uncertain risk in the future,’” he said. “We’re not trying to prohibit a whole bunch of stuff. We’re trying to move forward pragmatically.”
On Vashon, the county is proposing to establish a three-foot “sea level rise buffer” in the area adjacent to the coastal high hazard floodplain of the island. That buffer would require structures to be built at a height of three feet above the Base Flood Elevation (BFE), the potential water level reached during a major flood event.
Currently, King County requires any structure built in the high hazard area to stand three feet above the BFE. The update to the comprehensive plan extends that policy to the new buffer zone — any new structure would have to be built on land with an elevation three feet higher than the BFE.
“We want to make sure that activities that occur within that area are done safely because we don’t expect people to build a house and abandon it in the next decade,” said Simmonds. “We expect houses to last.”
There are other proposed amendments to the county comprehensive plan involving sea level rise. Any development on a bluff would have to be set back from the edge by 50 feet pending the results of a geotechnical study, or 75 feet without one if the bluff intersects with the steep slope hazard zone, the coastal high hazard area or the new sea level rise buffer. No more wells could be dug in the coastal high hazard area; building a new bulkhead would have to be more cost-effective than moving an at-risk building out of harm’s way under the new guidelines or it would be prohibited.
“We’re trying to have folks elevate or set back their house in situations where that makes sense,” said Simmonds.
Several comments were made at the meeting from islanders who believe the county already has too much oversight of construction activities surrounding their shoreline and maintenance of bulkheads, resulting in wasted time and frustration.
In a phone conversation, Laura Casey of the Department of Local Services Permitting Division said a shoreline exemption is needed to proceed with bulkhead repairs and replacements for work ranging in scale from swapping out a few boards to more serious labor on harder armoring.
To obtain a shoreline exemption, Casey said a geotechnical report is necessary to determine if an existing bulkhead is actually compromised and to document any imminent hazard shoreline armoring may present to the residence or a septic system. Next, an ecological evaluation of the impact posed by the bulkhead on the natural shoreline function is required, followed by possible mitigation. A review as part of the SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act) process will be needed after that, in addition to issuing Flood Hazard Certification.
Casey said the process is time-consuming and fairly onerous.
“It takes longer to get through this permitting process than it used to due to understaffing, in my opinion,” she said, noting that bulkhead code violations are in large part the result of a breakdown in communication.
“People may not understand the process or they may decide it’s too complex and say ‘I’m just going to do it.’”
That is part of the reason, Casey said, that the department hosted a workshop about marine shoreline ecology and management with the King County Conservation District last winter for waterfront property owners.
“We do it to explain the value of what they actually own and the kinds of things it would take to deal with those things,” she said.
Kollin Higgins of the Department of Natural Resources and Parks was at the meeting and is the author of a 2014 report that found a large number of bulkheads have been built in the county that were not reviewed or approved for construction, including on Vashon.
Moreover, restoration efforts to remove some armoring from county shorelines has not been able to keep up with how fast it has been built in other areas.
Higgins emphasized that the county wants the same thing as everyone else — to stop shorelines across Puget Sound from disappearing under the waves. But that will require cooperation among everyone.
“The intent of a lot of what is being proposed is to try to make sure that when [people] start building in the future … they aren’t putting their structure in harm’s way in 20 years,” he said.