Conservation Notes - June 2021
- Last Updated: June 10, 2021
- Skagit County Shoreline Master Program update
The deadline for comments on Skagit County’s comprehensive update of its Shoreline Master Program (SMP) is 4:30 p.m. on June 22nd. The SMP is the collection of regulations pertaining to shoreline protection and development. According to the Department of Ecology’s website, the Shoreline Management Act, which requires SMP’s, applies to:
- All marine waters
- Streams and rivers with greater than 20 cubic feet per second mean annual flow
- Lakes 20 acres or larger
- Upland areas called shorelands that extend 200 feet landward from the edge of these waters
- Biological wetlands and river deltas connected to these water bodies
- Some or all of the 100-year floodplain, including all wetlands
The relevance for Skagit Audubon lies in how shoreline regulations affect birds and other wildlife and their habitat needs. In reviewing the draft, Audubon is considering, for example, whether the marine shoreline spawning areas of forage fish, principal food for many seabirds, are adequately protected. The county’s draft SMP update gives very little attention to sea level rise and how it will affect development but also habitat. A realistic SMP would provide for inland migration of marsh areas, for example, as sea level increases. Other areas of concern that are being noted include decrease in the size of required riparian and shoreline buffers, allowance for timber harvest in those buffers, and provisions for aquaculture (cf. the problems with the fish farm off Cypress Island). On May 30th, the Skagit Scoop, a website featuring articles about Skagit County government, published an article about the SMP update that gives a good overview: https://skagitscoop.org/blog/skagit-shoreline-plan-draft-rewrite-raises-concerns/.
You can read about the update, see the complete draft, and submit comments at: https://skagitcountysmp.squarespace.com. For more detailed information about the current and also past Skagit County Shoreline Master Program planning efforts, go to https://skagitcounty.net/Departments/PlanningAndPermit/SMPmain.htm.
After adoption by the County Commissioners, the updated SMP will go to the WA Department of Ecology for review and approval. Note that certain cities, such as Anacortes and Mount Vernon, are also required to have and update their own Shoreline Master Programs. The county’s SMP applies only to the unincorporated parts of Skagit County.
- “Fully Contained Communities” pass first hurdle
As mentioned in last month’s Conservation Notes, the Skagit County Commissioners have repeatedly rejected proposed amendments to the county’s Comprehensive Plan which would allow so-called “Fully Contained Communities” (FCC) to be built in the county’s unincorporated areas. FCC’s are large developments (multi-thousand homes) at urban density in otherwise rural areas. Among the threats such developments pose are significant loss of farmland and wildlife habitat. And FCC’s are not “fully contained” in that they lack support services needed in any community and otherwise provided by incorporated governments in cities and towns. With FCC’s it falls to county government and all the county’s tax-paying citizens to organize and pay for those services, such as fire protection, law enforcement, schools, and more.
Changes to the county’s Comprehensive Plan can be submitted annually either by the public or by Planning & Development Services staff. Altering the county’s planning policies to allow FCC’s was among the proposed changes recently considered by the Board of County Commissioners at the request of an out-of-county development firm. Despite 700 comments and letters submitted in opposition, the County Commissioners voted 3 to 0 to docket this proposal. This decision not only flies in the face of public opinion but also ignores long-standing intergovernmental agreements and the procedure for changes to planning policies. In their discussion, the Commissioners cited the county’s housing shortage but said nothing about how allowing FCC’s will guarantee that new housing will alleviate the affordability problem or how it will address the general local housing shortage. Large new developments are as likely to simply attract long-distance commuters from Snohomish, King, and Whatcom counties priced out of the housing markets there. Allowing FCC’s here would ignore the well-documented negative experience of other counties with this type of development and ignore the Growth Management Act’s emphasis on accommodating growth within Urban Growth Areas (UGAs). Each of Skagit’s incorporated towns and cities has a designated UGA. It has been clearly shown that Skagit County’s UGAs are sufficient to accommodate the additional housing needed to provide for the population growth Skagit County is obligated to accept under the Growth Management Act. Why are our County Commissioners now yielding to pressure from a developer of the type of project other counties have learned the hard way to avoid? The Commissioners have had nothing to say so far about how they will protect Skagit County from loss of farmland, commercial forest lands, and upland habitat, how the immense traffic problems will be dealt with, and where the county staff and funding will come from for the necessary police, fire protection, schools, and other services in these unincorporated “communities”.
It is notable that Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, whose purpose is in its name, have come out strongly in opposition to FCC’s. Speaking of one particular FCC project repeatedly proposed in the past and very likely to arise again, the Skagitonians website states:
“The proposed project violates the 2002 Framework Agreement and Skagit County Countywide Planning Policies that have been agreed to by the County, Cities, and Towns and would disregard 32-years of community led and supported comprehensive planning.
“Although the proposed project is touted as a Fully Contained Community, it will not truly be fully contained because it does not include adequate commercial, retail, health services, and other infrastructure to fully support the population density.”
By docketing the FCC proposal, the County Commissioners (BOCC) have added it to the list of Comprehensive Plan changes which Planning & Development Services is to study further, followed by deliberation by the county’s barely functional Planning Commission, who will make a recommendation to the BOCC. The County Commissioners will then decide whether or not to open the door to these giant developments in Skagit County, essentially ruling on the fate of Skagit County as we know it. It takes just two Commissioners to rule the day with our antique three-Commissioner system. Why does Skagit Audubon care about all this? FCC’s are simply sprawl. Besides producing food for people, agricultural lands here are important habitat particularly for wintering raptors, waterfowl, and shorebirds. Upland habitat is critical for a wide variety of bird and mammal species. If population growth in Skagit County is accommodated in sprawling developments rather than within Urban Growth Areas, the habitat for birds and other creatures which is at the heart of the Audubon mission will be severely reduced.
- Osprey nest on the MJB waterfront property in Anacortes
The city’s demolition permit issued for the removal of the 2 towers on the MJB property near the waterfront at 17th and Q requires that the work wait until after osprey nesting is finished. It also “requests” that the developer at some unspecified future date provide a nesting platform for use by osprey, presumably somewhere on the property. An April 7th article on goSkagit.com/Anacortes (https://www.goskagit.com/anacortes/news/mjb-will-remove-100-foot-towers-after-ospreys-leave-nest/article_32b534ce-980d-11eb-9717-f75447dd92b1.html) describes the situation. Information which Skagit Audubon received from the city did not indicate any measures being required to avoid disturbing the ospreys during site development work slated to begin this June or July before the young ospreys will have fledged. Tim Manns has written Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife District Wildlife Biologist Robert Waddell asking if the department is requiring or suggesting such measures.
Updates on other issues Skagit Audubon is following
- Mining Projects in Skagit County and the Skagit River Headwaters
Washington Wild’s campaign to engage governments and organizations in opposing any issuance by British Columbia of a permit to mine the “Donut Hole” between Manning and Skagit Valley Provincial Parks has successfully engaged a wide range of participants. Locally, the Skagit County Commissioners and many of the county’s city and town councils have sent letters to Premier John Horgan of British Columbia urging that this threat to the water quality of the Skagit River be averted.
A May 30th Kimberly Cauvel article in the Skagit Valley Herald summarized the three currently proposed mining projects in Skagit County which have sparked concern (https:// www.goskagit.com/news/environment/opposition-continues-over-skagit-county-mining-proposals/article_1da57e13-7dae-579a-acc9-3c6e0efedbcf.html). The Washington Department of Natural Resources is considering permitting the quarrying of jetty stone at the Big Bear Mine outside Marblemount. The proponents present this as a much scaled-down version of the earlier proposal by Kiewit Corporation to obtain stone for Army Corps of Engineers projects at the mouth of the Columbia River and elsewhere. The Skagit River Alliance (https:// www.skagitriveralliance.org) is a local organization opposing this plan and seeking public support for having Skagit County, rather than DNR, be the lead on evaluating the potential impacts of the mining plan and deciding on the permitting and mitigation. DNR’s analysis has been cursory at best and has disregarded impacts anywhere but at the quarry site itself. Skagit Audubon provided detailed comments critical of the earlier Kiewit proposal and has similar concerns about the new plan. See the Skagit River Alliance website on the need for comments you can submit right now.
Concrete Nor’West (owned by Miles Sand and Gravel) has for some years been working towards opening a large gravel mining operation very close to the Samish River. After many fits and starts, the county’s permitting for this project is moving ahead again despite concerted efforts by a local organization (Central Samish Valley Neighbors) to get attention paid to serious traffic and environmental hazards. The Samish River and its tributary Swede Creek are both salmon-bearing and could easily be negatively impacted by the proposed mine. About two river miles down the Samish from the proposed mine site is Skagit Land Trust’s Tope Ryan Conservation Area with significant habitat for birds, beaver, salmonids, and other wildlife. The conservation area is by the confluence of the Samish River and Swede Creek. https://centralsamish.wordpress.com/2021/04/22/action-alert-please-submit-comments-on-proposed-gravel-mine/ and https://www.skagitcounty.net/Departments/PlanningAndPermit/gravelmine.htm.
The third proposal is for reactivation and expansion of a currently inactive gravel mining operation on Fidalgo Island near Lake Erie. After opposition from nearby landowners and expert testimony on hydraulics, geological hazards, and permitting regulation problems, the Skagit County Commissioners sent the proposal back to Planning & Development Services to require a Geologically Hazardous Site Assessment. For more information, go to https://www.skagitcounty.net/Departments/PlanningAndPermit/ERIEgravelmine.htm. Watch for public comment opportunities on these mining projects in the months ahead.
- Agritourism survey
Earlier this spring, Skagit County Planning & Development Services conducted an on-line survey concerning agritourism in the county. Read the results at:
https://www.skagitcounty.net/Departments/planningandpermit/AgtourismMain.htm. The relevance for Audubon lies in the importance of agricultural areas of the county to Trumpeter and Tundra Swans, Snow Geese, raptors, and other species and the impact as well as the opportunities which the associated tourism has for farmers, farming, and birds. Quite a few of the survey respondents are directly involved in farming. Responses to questions about agritourism (the problems and economic opportunities, the possible need for more or different regulations) ranged from angry (“Stay out of our business! We’re overregulated already!”) to enthusiasm for increasing income and thereby making otherwise less prosperous farms viable. A number of respondents mentioned traffic, safety, and trespassing problems related to birding; presumably, from visitors coming to see snow geese and swans (and maybe also raptors and short-eared owls on Samish Flats, though not mentioned specifically). Skagit Audubon could consider ways it might help alleviate the birding-related problems in the county’s agricultural areas, while recognizing that the inappropriate behavior by birders is unlikely that of Skagit chapter members.
- Audubon Washington priorities in the state legislative session
For the last several state legislative sessions, Audubon Washington has been particularly focused on passage of major bills addressing reduction of emissions contributing to climate change.
Just when it seemed that this year’s state legislature would not pass any major bills addressing climate change, several did pass - - with conditions. The two which would most reduce greenhouse gas emissions are the Clean Fuel Standard (HB 1091) and the Climate Commitment Act (SB 5126, “Cap & Invest”). With transportation accounting for 44% of Washington’s carbon emissions, seriously addressing the climate crisis requires transitioning away from fossil fuels. The Clean Fuel Standard does this. The Climate Commitment Act will reduce emissions from the largest single sources and also invest in the transition away from fossil fuels. The Washington legislature passes a budget every two years; actually three budgets: operating, capital, and transportation. The 2021 legislative session ended on schedule April 25th but without passing a transportation budget. The last minute compromise in passing the two big climate bills tied their implementation to passing a transportation package before January 2023. On May 17th, Governor Inslee signed the bills but vetoed the implementation delay provisions, likely prompting a legal challenge. The Governor stated, “Our climate commitment, made by our legislature in 2020, is to cut climate pollution by over 50% in the next nine years, on our pathway to net-zero climate pollution by 2050. It won’t be easy, but these bills go a long ways to getting us there.” There is talk of a special session of the legislature later this year to pass a transportation budget and put these climate bills into action.
4. Counting Vaux’s Swifts at migratory roost sites in Skagit County
During the past month, several volunteers have watched for and counted Vaux’s Swifts at
three migratory roost sites, all chimneys, in Sedro-Woolley. Swifts do not seem to have returned to using the tall stack at the former Northern State Hospital. Activity at the 2 downtown Sedro-Woolley sites has ranged from no swifts entering either chimney to as many as 750. There could be migratory roosting activity through about mid-June. Volunteers interested in helping survey should contact Tim Manns (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Brian Zinke (email@example.com).
Other Skagit Audubon conservation issues and activities
For additional information about some of the above issues and others Skagit Audubon is following, go to Skagit Audubon’s website (https://www.skagitaudubon.org/), click on the Conservation tab, then on Conservation Notes and scroll down to earlier editions.
Issues needing action:
A simple way for Audubon members to advocate for regional and national protection of birds and other wildlife and their habitat is to respond to action alerts from Washington Audubon and National Audubon. Sign up for Audubon Washington’s Action Network at https://act.audubon.org/onlineactions/JGKjknsVTUKMSr4BoP2Nvw2. The National Audubon website (https://www.audubon.org) has abundant information on Audubon’s numerous current conservation campaigns. Sign up there to receive national alerts.