Island bulkheads are center of county land use talk

Midpoint update to the King County comprehensive plan includes response to sea level rise on Vashon.

Ivan Miller of The Office of Performance, Strategy and Budget discusses key points of the comprehensive plan update (Paul Rowley/Staff Photo).

Ivan Miller of The Office of Performance, Strategy and Budget discusses key points of the comprehensive plan update (Paul Rowley/Staff Photo).

At a meeting last week, county officials discussed the broader objectives of the midpoint update to the King County comprehensive plan, which guides land use.

They later broke into small group sessions with more than 75 islanders to consider amendments to development regulations, the county’s climate change response and current housing code.

But many in the audience reiterated comments made at an open house earlier this month that new specifications for building or maintaining waterfront bulkheads under the plan would make it harder for them to comply, and that doing so will be cost-prohibitive.

“We’re trying to address growth, [and] we’re trying to address the services for how we accommodate that growth,” said Ivan Miller of The Office of Performance, Strategy and Budget. He was talking about the policies implemented by the county’s comprehensive plan, required under the state Growth Management Act, to manage pressures that the county anticipates will develop within the next 20 years — namely, cost of living challenges, zoning constraints and sea level rise.

Last Thursday, the comprehensive plan draft was available for islanders to review, and county staff from multiple departments were on hand to answer questions about it. The draft is subject to an ongoing public comment period that closes at the end of the month. After the county collects initial feedback, the draft plan will make its way through Executive Dow Constantine’s office before it is presented to the King County Council in September for final approval, which is slated to occur next summer.

“We’re early in the process, but we’ve certainly done a lot of work to get the documents ready to share with you,” said Miller.

Among the items in the county’s scope of work are a number of proposals regarding land use and zoning, such as prohibiting marijuana production and processing in Vashon Town as well as other county business districts. Miller said this is attributed to the pedestrian-oriented use of those spaces, as marijuana production and processing facilities require optimal security such as fencing, and cannot have windows facing the street, making them more suitable for commercial or industrial districts.

Smaller amendments to the plan include technical corrections, such as changing some shoreline property designations on Maury Island from natural to rural to reflect the fact that there are houses there.

The update of the comprehensive plan also spurred an appraisal of regulations for accessory dwelling units (ADUs), such as attached or detached in-law suites or backyard cottages. Miller said this outcome was due in large part to the subarea planning process the county led on the island in 2017. At the time, many expressed that they wanted more flexibility for “off-the-shelf ADUs that they could build more cheaply” to meet the shortage of available housing county-wide.

Miller said the main change would be to the minimum lot size requirements for building ADUs in urban areas, but the comprehensive plan draft, he said, recommends that pre-approved building plans be available at the Permitting Division to standardize the process so ADUs can be built more quickly.

An additional topic at the meeting was the 2020 update to the county’s strategic climate action plan (SCAP), setting the goal of reducing carbon pollution in the county by 80 percent before 2050. That plan also proposes ways the county can prepare for climate change impacts on utilities, transportation and wildlife, and advance equitable solutions to balance competing needs. Public comment can be submitted online at Work on the SCAP will continue through next year.

Islander Jim Simmonds of the Department of Natural Resources and Parks discussed the proposed code revisions that would limit construction in areas at risk of flooding and impact maintenance or construction of bulkheads on private shorelines. It was a follow-up from an open house the county hosted earlier this month laying out the potential impact that rising seas as a result of warming temperatures could have on Vashon.

“In the future, we expect that shoreline flooding around Vashon will be different than it is now. As the oceans get higher, we’ll see the highest tide and wave actions occurring in places where they don’t currently occur,” he said.

Should the King County Council approve the amendments proposed for bulkheads in the comprehensive plan, some major bulkhead projects may be prohibited if building them is less cost-effective than moving an at-risk building out of harm’s way. New bulkheads will also have to be built as landward as possible, away from marine shorelines, to account for beach erosion and added wear and tear from sea level rise.

Prompted by a comment from an audience member, Simmonds explained that the county has not yet developed an application process for homeowners to demonstrate the cost-effectiveness of their bulkhead project in order to comply with the updated code, as it was still in draft form.

Another frustration shared at both the open house and latest meeting is with the county’s current handling of shoreline construction activities such as for bulkhead projects of any scale. Islander Philip Pitruzzello, who lives in the north end, asked if the county is under any mandate to expeditiously approve some applications for work depending on the circumstances.

Jim Chan, director of the Permitting Division for King County Local Services, responded, saying that the current policy allows for exceptions when necessary.

“If you are doing an emergency repair because of a failure that has impacts to your structure or your property, we will prioritize those,” he said. “In fact, you may be able to do the repair and submit the permits after the fact. You’ll have to get authorization to do the emergency repair, but in those failing situations, we will prioritize.”

Simmonds said he believes the county has more work to do based on input from both meetings on the island, specifically for the bulkhead code proposals. He encouraged more people to send comments and ask questions about the plan update at large.

“The intent, again, isn’t to say that everyone who has a bulkhead has to now move it,” he said. “It’s going to be a challenge as sea level rise increases to maintain bulkheads where they are … We’re just trying to come up with a path forward.”

Comments about the scope of the King County 2020 comprehensive plan midpoint limited update will be accepted until July 31. Submit online here.

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