Our Shoreline Master Program Update: Some Important Facts

Guest Op-Ed By Maradel Gale, Elise Wright and Marcia Lagerloef Here are some important facts about the Shoreline Master Program (SMP) update, written by three community members who worked on the update.

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE1. Bainbridge Island has recently submitted an updated Shoreline Master Program (SMP) to the Washington Department of Ecology for approval. This SMP was the result of over three years of intensive public input into the requirements of the SMP and review by large numbers of citizens of our community.

2. The SMP is required by Washington State law, having been mandated by a public initiative in 1972, sponsored by the people of the state, that became the Shoreline Management Act (SMA). The SMA is an environmental protection law, and the required SMPs are intended to help restore the viability of our Puget Sound. As such, the SMA addresses many of the causes of decline in the productivity of the Puget Sound. Some of these are discussed in the points that follow. The current update process by cities and counties is also required by law, and the key mandate is that future shoreline development result in “no net loss” of shoreline function.

3. Bainbridge Island sits in the middle of our Sound, containing 53 miles of shoreline. Much of this shoreline has already been developed, mostly with residential uses, and much of it is already armored (it has bulkheads, riprap or other non-natural structures along the shore). Residential use is a preferred use of developed state shoreline properties, and remains so through the update process.

4. Zoning was developed in this country in the 1920s as a means to protect land uses from other land uses. This method of control of land use was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1926 in Euclid v. Ambler Realty. Without zoning, each property owner would be able to do whatever s/he wanted with the land, which means that a residential neighborhood could suddenly find a bowling alley being built on land in the midst of the neighborhood. Zoning was adopted to protect property owners from incompatible uses.

5. When land is zoned under a comprehensive land use plan, some uses and some structures become “non-conforming.” This simply means that under the new law, these uses would not be allowed or some aspect of the structure would not be allowed, with many exceptions. Non-conformity has existed since the beginning of zoning. Once a use exists, or a structure is built, even if subsequent zoning laws make it non-conforming, it is allowed to remain as it is. When it is destroyed or the use is discontinued, the land owner is required to conform to the law in effect at the time of rebuilding. However, in our SMP, non-conforming structures destroyed by calamity – fire, landslide or earthquake, for example – may be rebuilt just as they were. This is an exemption not allowed in non-shoreline areas, where rebuilding for any reason must follow current zoning laws and building codes. Remodeling in any area must follow current building codes, but only for the area of the home actually being remodeled or added on.

6. There are two types of non-conformity: use and structure. As an example, if a pre-existing commercial use such as an auto repair shop is in an area zoned strictly for residential use, the auto repair shop may continue to function in its current form. However, if the property owner decides to change the type of use, and become a fish processing plant, such a change will not be allowed. At the time a change is proposed, the land must be used as designated in the current zoning, so only a residential use would be allowed upon closure of the auto repair shop.

7. In a structural example of non-conformity, a parcel of land may be too small to accommodate the required setbacks for front and side yards. However, the permit will allow a home to be built, since people have the right to have some economic value from their property. In this case, the structure is non-conforming because the home is built within the setback area. It should be noted that non-conformity of structure, since the structure can be rebuilt, does not negatively affect the value of the property. In fact, in many cases the opposite is true, inasmuch as an undeveloped property would not be able to build as close to the shoreline, for example. That gives added value to the existing home which enjoys a grandfathered benefit.  On Bainbridge, 35% of shoreline properties are non-conforming under the current SMP in effect since 1996.

shoreline scene8. Since most of the Bainbridge Island shoreline property is already developed for residential use, the effect of the SMP is largely limited to undeveloped property where future development would be required to meet the new standards of the SMP. Again, there are exceptions where the nature of the land does not allow the full incorporation of the zoning requirements, such as a lot that is encumbered by a wetland, for example.

9. In the case of an owner of an existing property who wishes to remodel, up to 50% of the home may be remodeled within the existing footprint, and the home may be expanded up to 25% landward into the buffer (one time only) with compensatory mitigation (typically this means adding native vegetation).

10. Where a homeowner proposes major changes on the property, such as the tear-down of the existing residence and replacement with a new house, the new SMP will govern such matters as the placement of the home in relation to the shoreline, type and amount of vegetation along the shoreline, and other non-shoreline zoning matters such as set-backs, height, etc.

11. Shoreline armoring (bulkhead, rip-rap, groins) changes significantly the features of the nearshore area, particularly the movement of sediments along the shoreline, and the provision of habitat for our salmonid species and their prey which depend on our nearshore area. For this reason, there are strong requirements related to future armoring of intact natural shoreline. This is a resource that is very valuable to the Puget Sound, and for that reason, any request for new armoring must meet high standards. There is a hierarchy of types of shoreline protection that are to be reviewed for ways to meet the need for armoring, so that the least destructive type is employed. Existing bulkheads may be rebuilt, repaired or replaced, and a geotechnical report may be required to demonstrate potential harm to the primary structure within 5 years. The state guidelines suggest this should be a three-year threshold for potential harm; our SMP is more liberal than the state recommends.

12. Our shorelines are an integral part of the overall Puget Sound environment, and a part of the particular ecosystem in which we live. For that reason, there are requirements for vegetation retention and planting within the first 30 feet of setback from the mean high tide line; these requirements will help keep the shoreline as protective of the wildlife species as possible. Native vegetation, the sorts of plants that occur naturally in our environment, are preferred for the benefits they provide the sea life. Trees along the shoreline provide shading, insects drop off of the trees and shrubs into the water and are an important food source for fish, and vegetation provides shoreline stabilization for the upland owner. The SMP does not require property owners to replant their yards with native vegetation until and unless there are changes made to the property which alter the existing situation. In those instances, a buffer zone of native vegetation can be required to be planted. An example would be to replace part of a lawn with small native plants such as salal and Oregon grape. Some trees may be removed in order to protect views.

13. Overwater structures create a number of issues along our shorelines. An area of bay covered by docks extending out into the water is less navigable for all water-borne users. The shading that occurs in strips covered by the docks is a hazard for juvenile salmonid species, as their eyes do not adjust to the changes in light they encounter passing under an area covered by docks, and they swim into deeper unshaded water where they are more vulnerable to predators. On the outer shores of our island, strong currents, shallow sloping shores and seasonal high winds create conditions that can be hazardous to docks. For that reason, docks are primarily limited to enclosed bays and inlets. Existing docks may be repaired and replaced, using best environmental technology (grating, no creosote pilings, etc.).

14.  If you have questions about the content of the SMP update that was submitted to the Department of Ecology, you can send them to getinvolved@qualitybainbridge.org  and here is a link where you can read the SMP update  in its entirety:  http://www.ci.bainbridge-isl.wa.us/smp_update.aspx

Maradel Gale has been working on shoreline management issues since 1969, first in Oregon and most recently on Bainbridge Island where she is a member of the Planning Commission and served as a liaison to the citizen workgroups and task force charged with drafting the SMP update. In December of 2012, she was unanimously re-appointed to the Planning Commission by the Bainbridge City Council.

Elise Wright first became involved in Island shoreline issues in 1975. Since then she has advocated for environmental protection for Blakely Harbor, for Critical Areas, and spent 3 years on the Citizens Workgroup on Buffers and Vegetation Management for the SMP update.

Marcia Lagerloef is an oceanographer and shoreline homeowner. She was a member of the Shoreline Modification Work Group that worked with city staff to develop the first draft of the SMP update. She also helped write the SMP that was adopted in 1996.