Shoreline rules update offers lessons

OlympianSeptember 18, 2013 

Next week, the Olympia City Council will begin wrapping up what has been an arduous path toward updating its Shoreline Master Program, the regulations that will govern development on Olympia’s marine and freshwater shorelines. Although a significant review process at the Department of Ecology remains, the heavy local lifting is nearly done.

The Thurston County Chamber of Commerce has been substantially involved in the process and wishes to congratulate the city and the City Council on the cusp of reaching this milestone.

Shoreline planning is not easy stuff, in part because of the Shoreline Management Act’s split personality. On the one hand, the act recognizes that the state’s shorelines are valuable and fragile resources that must be strenuously protected. On the other hand, the act also recognizes what human civilization has known for millennia: that our shoreline areas — be they rivers, oceans, or Salish Seas — serve as pillars of commerce and community. As a result, the act also fosters the reasonable and appropriate development and use of the state’s shoreline areas.

The city’s latest draft largely balances these competing goals. The city has arrived at setbacks in the downtown core of 30 feet for all but water-dependent uses. This is a level that provides both protection for the shoreline environment and needed certainty for shoreline property owners. Critically, existing analyses also indicate that these setbacks will achieve the “no-net-loss” standard required by Ecology.

The city’s latest draft will also include significant protections for existing property owners when it comes to the maintenance and repair of their existing structures and uses, even following catastrophe. And, the proposal appropriately recognizes the preferred status of water-dependent and water-oriented uses within the shoreline area.

In short, the city has arrived at a compromise that the city, and its citizens, can feel good about.

But while we laud the milestone the city has reached, I am reminded of an apt quote from Bill Gates: “It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” While the result here is surely not a “failure,” the city should take a hard look at why the update process stretched on so far beyond its planned timeline and consumed so many additional city and community resources.

In retrospect, it seems the city and its Planning Commission could have achieved this reasonable result far sooner had those bodies placed more emphasis on science, which unfortunately took a bit of a back seat to aesthetics during much of the city’s process. Had the city simply stuck with the direction indicated by scientific analyses performed at the very start of the updated process, and therefore stayed within the “no net loss” parameter of what the act is intended to achieve for the city’s shorelines, much of the subsequent procedural delay could have been avoided.

With this effort nearing conclusion, the city of Olympia should take the lessons it has learned from the SMP process and be sure to apply them in the future.

David Schaffert is president and CEO of the Thurston County Chamber of Commerce.

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