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City Council Submits Shoreline Master Plan to Ecology, With Caveats

City Hall will send a draft Shoreline Management Plan to the state Department of Ecology for approval in several weeks, marking a significant milestone in updating requirements from the 39-year-old law.

Completing a local process that has taken nearly three years, adopted the framework for new shoreline regulations Monday night and cleared the way for city planners to seek approval from state authorities.

On a 5-2 vote, the Council passed a resolution incorporating nearly all elements of the Mercer Island Planning Commission's (SMP) into their own findings. They directed City Hall to submit an updated SMP to the Washington Department of Ecology for approval. Councilmembers Dan Grausz and Mike Grady voted against the resolution. City Hall will submit the proposed regulations to Ecology next month and work with state regulators to find common ground. 

At issue is the protection of the Mercer Island shoreline's "natural character," which a 2009 Ecology report found had been highly developed and had a "low ecological function." Part of that ecological system — and perhaps none more symbolic — is the Puget Sound chinook salmon, which is listed as an endangered species. The regulations are intended to create "no net-loss" of the remaining habitat whenever any development on the Island's 944 residential waterfront properties occurs. Less than 10 percent of the Island's land, the waterfront properties are Mercer Island's most valuable real estate, assessed by King County officials at over $1.3 billion in market value.

City Development Director Tim Stewart said he hoped the new regulations could give property owners more certainty when dealing with authorities and encourage them to become part of the solution in restoring the natural habitat.

"I'm hoping that we see, over time, that people want to do the right thing without property loss," he said.

The City Council received the Planning Commission recommendations in March and concurred with all but one their findings — but that finding was an important one. A majority of City Council disagreed that no reliable science showed wider docks harmed the migration of salmonids, such as steelhead and chinook salmon, and reduced permitted new docks to be just 4 feet wide within the first 30 feet from shore — then allowing the rest of the dock to be at 8 feet wide. It also banned new covered moorages in the same area. The council also specified what materials could be used in repairing docks if more than half of the dock surface or structure were replaced.

Councilmembers Grasuz and Grady opposed the plan, viewing the recommendations as a missed opportunity to restore the shoreline environment and said the state would demand several changes to the proposed SMP.

"When I build an addition, I build them to current building code. We should have codes that are consistent," he said.

Several amendments were offered but were narrowly defeated by a divided council concerning the repair and replacement of moorage materials.

The primary changes to existing SMP rules include a reduction on the permitted size of a newly constructed dock from 600 to 480 square feet (alternative sizes for docks can be approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife); restrictions on new or expanded bulkheads; and increased shoreline vegetation standards for new development. On the other hand, the city is also proposing loosening restrictions on the spacing of docks and covered moorage from a minimum of 35 feet down to 20 feet; and allowances given to docks and waterfront structures in need of maintenance and repair to remain legally non-conforming — effectively retaining their “grandfathered” status — unless more than 50 percent of the decking or structure was replaced. The update to the Shoreline Master Plan was made necessary after the state updated Shoreline management guidelines in 2003. Many of the changes are requirements that apply to newly constructed docks or piers. Stewart estimated that only about 10 waterfront properties remained undeveloped and much of the new regulation would apply to those properties.

Most members in the audience — all waterfront property owners or waterfront developers — were supportive of the council's plan, but some voiced concern bordering on anger. Waterfront homeowner Bob Rowe sought to influence the City Council by reminding them of the inequity of his outsized tax burden. 

"We don't need to put more regulation on the people who pay more taxes and pay the wages around here," he said. "Don't put more regulations on the things we already have."

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