Property rights advocates dubious of shoreline task force

With less than a year remaining before its recommendations must be finalized, Kitsap County’s Shoreline Task Force met on Thursday night in Silverdale for the first time in 2011 amid growing fears from its critics that the entire process is flawed.

“Basically, our belief is that the task force has become a sham,” said Kitsap Alliance of Property Owners member Jackie Rossworn. “By law, the county has to make the public a part of the process. But it’s obvious the commissioners have stacked the task force with people who think the way they do and will come up with a plan that does what they already intend to do.

“If that’s the case,” she wondered, “what’s the point?“

Under the state’s Shorelines Management Act of 1972, local jurisdictions are required to periodically revise regulations dealing with waterfront property. Kitsap County must make its revisions by 2012, and the process must include public participation.

The two- to three-year negotiation period, however, is always a tug-of-war between property owners and environmental activists.

Already this year, KAPO members took issue with the facilitator the county hired to guide the task force discussions.

In September, the organization tried unsuccessfully to have Margret Norton-Arnold, principal of Seattle-based Norton-Arnold and Associates, fired for rudeness and perceived bias.

Then in early December, Bob Benze, who represents KAPO in the task force, authored a letter to Kitsap County Community Development Director Larry Keeton raising questions about the panel’s direction.

“My experience over the last several months,” he wrote, “has been that the county is not really interested in having me or other members of the task force suggest anything that might require significant change to the work in progress.

“In fact,” Benze added, “much of the major work had already been scoped, funded and accomplished before the task force was even assembled.”

Worse, Benze believes the county is pursuing an outcome that violates state laws and is justifying its actions by using junk science.

In September 2009, he explained, a Washington State Appeals Court ruled in favor of KAPO in a lawsuit dealing with the county’s use of the Growth Management Act (GMA) as a shoreline buffer guideline.

Shoreline areas, determined as 200 feet of the high-tide line, are supposed to be governed by the Shoreline Management Act. But the Growth Management Act also administers these areas.

The court of appeals ruled that county regulators cannot use the GMA as a shortcut to regulate shoreline property.

“But the county is ignoring the ruling and still wants to use the more restrictive GMA rules,” Benze said. “It’s as though the law doesn’t matter to the commissioners.”

He also argues the commissioners’ vision for new shoreline regulations is to restore as much waterfront property as possible to its natural state, even though that’s not the standard under the law.

Testifying before the Kitsap commissioners on Dec. 6, Benze noted the state Department of Ecology was very clear “that the baseline for the requirement for no net loss of shoreline ecological function is the shoreline as it exists today, and that restoration is not required for existing shoreline development, although it may be required to offset impacts from new development.”

Any other “restoration,” Benze said, would be strictly voluntary.

“The concern,” he said, “is that with a (county) policy emphasizing restoration, homeowners desiring a permit for any alteration to their home or property could be coerced by the county into shoreline restoration as a condition of obtaining a permit for any work.”

Lastly, Benze and other property rights advocates note that shoreline regulations must conform legally to the “best available science,” and yet the task force has repeatedly discounted the results of detailed scientific studies.

Southworth resident Michael Gustavson on Dec. 16 presented Keeton with a lengthy letter citing numerous academic studies showing development of such shoreline features as breakwaters and seawalls were not inherently harmful to the environment and native species — and in some cases were even beneficial.

Noting the work of Dr. Don Flora, who studied the Bainbridge Island near-shore, Gustavson suggested that “approximately 97 percent of the influence on habitat was from natural causes and that only 3 percent could be attributed to human-caused activities.

“So we as the public,” he said, “can’t be too strong in our contention that the county’s nonscientific approach is not just biased, it is just plain wrong.

“We find ourselves at a fork in the road regarding the update of the Shoreline Master Plan,” Gustavson wrote. “Are we intent on improving the ‘looks’ of the shoreline or are we to take expensive actions that will not improve the saltwater for marine organisms? We need to publicly define the problem we’re trying to solve before we lurch off to create solutions that may well not become solutions at all, but create further problems.”

“(Dr. Flora’s) integrity, his credentials and his review of shoreline science that was provided to the county are above reproach,” Benze agreed. “Yet, rather than doing the hard work of responding to his scientific observations, the response is either to ignore him or to attempt to discredit him and his work.”

“I’ve seen this movie before,” Benze wrote in his letter to Keeton. “The local government bowing to the environmental activist interests at the expense of the private property owner; the general lack of any real science to back up decision-making; the hiring of a professional facilitator to sell the government’s position to a carefully selected group of people; and the attempt to ignore or marginalize people who constructively criticize the county’s work.

“Being an optimist,” Benze concluded, “I still hold out hope that the county will entertain a genuine and constructive dialogue on some of these issues. But the results so far are not encouraging.”

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