In 2009, Rodney Hearne refaced his bulkhead at Sylvan Beach, something he said he and his family members have done many times since 1928, when his grandfather built their walk-in home.
In June, however, Hearne received a letter from King County informing him that he may be required to seek a construction permit for the work he did. After following up with the county’s Department of Permitting and Environmental Review (DPER), he learned that he did in fact need a permit, and that obtaining it would cost about $1,900.
“I’m not very happy about it,” Hearne said last week.
Hearne’s property was one of 72 on Vashon identified in a study completed last spring as having had shoreline changes in the last decade that could require permits. Unpermitted changes around the shore of the island include bulkhead repairs, bulkhead installations, clearing of vegetation, and the construction of docks, stairs or other structures. Two houses were found to have been built entirely without permits.
Since then, 40 homeowners have responded to letters sent out by the county, according to Jim Chan, DPER’s director of permitting. DPER staff have investigated each case, and of those who responded, 32 homeowners must now seek construction permits. Six people didn’t actually make changes or did work that was too minimal to require a permit, and two people will be required to remove structures they built.
This fall the county will send another round of letters to those who didn’t respond, this time including a deadline and an explanation of what action the county will take next.
Chan said ultimately those who never respond will face fines.
Laura Casey, an environmental scientist for DPER who has been working with homeowners, said most Vashon residents she’s talked to have been willing to discuss what they’ve done at their homes and even allowed her to visit when necessary. Many island properties were flagged for cleared vegetation, she said, something not typically allowed by the county, as well as bulkhead repairs, as bulkheads require upkeep and can be damaged in severe weather.
“A lot of people have really good reasons why they did what they did,” she said.
Many, however, must now obtain what’s called a shoreline exemption permit, Casey said, a permit that costs $670. Some will also have to complete an environmental review process that will add $987 to the bill. Casey called responses to the county’s effort mixed, but “most people have been very polite and very cooperative,” she said.
As for the two unpermitted homes, she said it turned out the county already had a code enforcement case open against one, at Dolphin Point, after a complaint was filed, and the situation with the other one is not yet clear. County tax records say the lot on Glen Acres Road is empty, but the owner says a cabin and bulkhead have been there “forever.” The owner believes there’s been a mixup, Casey said, but won’t allow anyone to visit the site.
“Without permission, I’m not going to look,” she said, adding that the owner would receive a second letter.
David Raymond was contacted by the county after he installed a wooden ladder on the dock outside his home on the north end. He said that he would rather remove the ladder than apply for a permit.
“Unless the permit is free, which I doubt,” he said. “I’ll put a temporary rope ladder down here. I’m not going to give those guys a dime.”
Several people contacted by The Beachcomber said they had received letters and even applied for permits already, but declined to comment on the record. Several people criticized the effort.
“I hope to heck they don’t overdo this business of intruding on people’s private property to implement their wishes as far as the waterfront is concerned,” said Robert Linroth, who owns a small vacation home on Tramp Harbor. Linroth received a letter from the county, but found there was a property line mixup and he won’t need any permits. Still, he said he’s been contacted by the county for similar matters before and it makes him uncomfortable.
Chan, however, believes some don’t understand the county’s current effort, which he said is not about bringing in funds.
“We definitely don’t need the extra work,” he said. “We are really busy already.”
A recent study of the marine shoreline of King County completed by the Department of Natural Resources and Parks (DNRP) 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. The results have prompted 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 shoreline to those taken before 2005, identifying changes that had taken place outside. Of the 93 changes identified on the coast of Vashon and Maury (some properties had multiple changes), only eight of them had been permitted by King County.
Chan said that DPER wants homeowners to obtain the necessary permits, but it’s also using the opportunity to look at the effectiveness of its own regulations. As the county works with homeowners, it’s getting a better idea of why so many people on Vashon have skipped getting permits for shoreline work. For instance, some people didn’t realize they needed permits, Chan said, and in some cases the work was done by prior owners.
“Some are just ignoring the requirement and would rather ask for forgiveness than permission,” he added.
Chad Magnuson, who lives on Raab’s Lagoon, said he is glad to see the county taking steps to protect Puget Sound, but he has mixed feelings about how they’re doing it.
Magnuson was contacted by the county about a small ramp and floating platform he installed. He will now removed it rather than attempt to get it permitted, something the county said likely won’t be possible.
His family used the float to swim and launch kayaks, Magnuson said. Now they’ll have to walk down the bank to access the water, something he suspects will ultimately do more damage to the shore than his ramp did.
“Some of the well-meaning regulation has made it onerous to do things people consider reasonable. … It’s problematic long term because there’s a climate of disregard for regulation,” he said.
Chan, however, said the county is considering islanders’ experiences and the permitting effort could actually bring about changes at DPER.
As part of the project, the agency will eventually work with DNRP to form recommendations on how it might improve compliance with shoreline building laws. Possible outcomes, he said, could be increasing outreach and education on Vashon or even making changes to building codes.
“This was a grant-funded audit that looks at the effectiveness of our codes,” he said. “Why are there still these types of violations? Is it because of education, lack of communication or lack of attention? Do we need to rewrite our codes?”