Op-Ed by Sen. Morton and Reps. Kretz and Short: Rules governing state’s shorelines need to strike balance with private property owners
In counties throughout the state, local officials are in the process of updating their shoreline master programs. Many citizens in the 7th Legislative District living on or near particular shorelines feel unfairly targeted with new restrictions and obligations on their property.
As elected officials with a history of working on behalf of private property rights, we'd like to bring a little background and clarity to the issue, while providing folks a strategy for having their voices and opinions heard.
Back in 1971, the Washington Environmental Council used the initiative to the Legislature process to put a shorelines protection bill before the Legislature. However, the Legislature passed a bill that was a bit different than the council's proposal and both pieces of legislation went before the people in a public vote. The voters chose the Legislature's version and thus the Shorelines Management Act (SMA) was born.
From the beginning, the act provided that the state would approve whatever local ordinances were proposed to implement the act and authorized the Department of Ecology (DOE) to make guidelines for what should be in the act. The DOE uses its authority to create rules, policy manuals and handbooks, adding hundreds of pages to the existing law. In addition, since the act's inception, we've seen a litany of changes to the SMA through court cases, legislation, and continued rulemaking and policy guidance from DOE. In many cases, the federal and local governments have specific requirements which must also be taken into consideration. This has created a heavy-handed process that is frustrating for landowners, cumbersome for local officials, and discouraging to the general public.
At various times over the last few legislative sessions, we have proposed or supported legislation to benefit property owners caught up in this complicated process. Our goal has been to give local governments and landowners more flexibility. We believe county commissioners can figure out what best fits their communities rather than having to implement regulations that were created with Lake Washington in mind.
In 2010, legislation passed which said that local critical areas ordinances could apply in the shorelines until local jurisdictions updated their programs. The law required that the shoreline master programs provide the same level of protection within the shorelines as the critical areas ordinance, and also required that there be no net loss of ecological functions. We opposed these changes.
In 2011, the Senate introduced legislation that was originally intended to protect legally built structures and designate them as conforming uses. This bill was modified throughout the legislative process so that it only protected homes and their secondary structures, including garages and sheds but not bulkheads or over-water structures. We supported amendments that would let any legally built structure be repaired or rebuilt. We supported the inclusion of protecting businesses, not just residential structures, but those amendments were not adopted. In the end we voted in support of the bill because, while it didn't go as far as desired, we believed it offered some protection to residential property owners. We will continue to work through the legislative process to try to bring further protections to property owners.
Where do we go from here?
Citizens who find themselves in real life disputes regarding shorelines need to let legislators (us) know so that we can use the examples to justify improvements to the law in the future. The best arguments for legislative change come from real life examples of what is working and what is not.
You can also be involved at the local level. Find out when the commissioners are meeting to discuss the shorelines updates and give your testimony about your experiences. If you know of professionals or scientists that deal with shoreline environmental health, have them look at the policies and publicly comment on whether DOE has the science right. This is especially helpful when local authorities want to implement something different than what is coming from DOE.
While we live in a state that values the health of our shorelines, we must make sure the policies implemented are not driven by West-side environmental activism and that the fundamental rights of property owners are protected. We invite you to be part of the solution by being involved in the process.
(Sen. Bob Morton, R-Kettle Falls, Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, and Rep. Shelly Short, R-Addy, all represent the 7th Legislative District.)