This appeared as an article in the February issue of "It's Your City."
Two years into the process of updating Bellevue's shoreline management regulations, the city continues to gather public input. While some property owners along Lake Washington and Lake Sammamish have engaged in the process, residents who swim, fish or boat in the lakes and streams around Bellevue also have a lot to gain by contributing to the discussion about how our shorelines are managed.
Bellevue's Shoreline Master Program update can seem complicated. To make the topic easier to understand, city planners have provided answers here to commonly asked questions.
What is the Shoreline Master Program?
Bellevue's Shoreline Master Program is essentially a planning and zoning ordinance that governs waterfront development in Bellevue. It was drafted in 1974, following passage by the state of the Shoreline Management Act, intended to prevent the "inherent harm in an uncoordinated and piecemeal development of the state's shorelines."
Cities such as Bellevue are the primary regulators of their shorelines, but the state Department of Ecology approves local programs and some permit decisions. The Shoreline Master Program (SMP) protects natural resources, encourages land uses that require a waterfront location and promotes public access to shorelines.
Why is Bellevue updating its shoreline management program now?
In 2003, the state revised its shoreline management guidelines (the standards which local governments must follow in drafting and updating their SMPs). The Legislature ordered the update in the face of mounting scientific evidence that the health of Washington's lakes, rivers and streams is suffering in part because of insufficient shoreline protections.
With the new state guidelines in place, city shoreline master programs needed review to address current conditions, consider new science and better align with related laws. An effective shoreline master program update will reduce unsustainable development and provide shoreline land owners with a clearer set of standards.
What shorelines are in Bellevue?
Shorelines include the water bodies of Lake Washington, Lake Sammamish, Phantom Lake, Mercer Slough, Kelsey Creek and properties within 200 feet of these water bodies and associated floodplains and wetlands.
What must Bellevue do to update its SMP?
Essentially, the city is required to conduct an inventory and characterization of its shorelines, and assess what kinds of development and environmental conditions are there now. Based on that analysis, the city designates different portions of the shorelines for certain kinds of uses or activities.
Policies and regulations for shoreline uses and modifications (i.e. dredging, pier and bulkhead construction) are then developed. These policies and regulations are assessed for their cumulative impacts in the future. The regulations should protect ecological functions from the impacts of new shoreline development.
As part of the protection of ecological functions, a restoration plan must be prepared. This is different from mitigation associated with development activities. The restoration plan identifies goals and objectives, and prioritizes opportunities for restoration. While restoration plans are not required for private development, there may be incentives for developers to invest in some restoration activities. All of these elements go into the preparation of an SMP.
What is the condition of Bellevue's shorelines today?
Most of Bellevue's shorelines are held in private, residential ownership; other uses include city parks and a few private marinas. Docks and bulkheads or retaining walls are prevalent. These types of modifications disconnect the lakes and streams from those inputs necessary for survival of fish and other species. Although much of the shoreline is developed, there are instances where vegetation and more natural conditions exist. Even developed areas can accommodate important, ecological functions.
Opportunities for restoration will be identified in the SMP restoration plan. Restoration does not mean return to a forested, uninhabited state. Rather, restoration means the reestablishment or improvement of impaired ecological shoreline processes or functions. (Functions refer to the role played by the physical, chemical and biological processes that maintain the aquatic and terrestrial environments that constitute the shoreline’s natural ecosystem.)
People are finding new strategies for protecting their property while also protecting and restoring habitat. A combination of plantings, gravel, stone, logs and slope modification have proved to be an effective alternative to concrete bulkheads or retaining walls. Restoration activities would occur through a voluntary or city-initiated restoration project.
The ecology of the city's shorelines, lakes and streams can improve significantly with modest measures, including revegetation, removal of intrusive shoreline structures and removal or treatment of toxic materials. The city hopes to provide tools and incentives to property owners to undertake restoration activities.
Where are we in the process?
An inventory of Bellevue's shoreline conditions has been completed. The Planning Commission is considering shoreline designations for the primary use of shoreline segments that respond to the conditions documented in the inventory. To date, no new policies or regulations have been formally proposed. The commission is slated to begin considering regulatory changes in the first quarter of 2010.
How will the city's shoreline management likely change as a result of the update?
A major addition to the SMP will be the environmental designations, essentially zoning, assigned to segments of the city's shorelines that reflect their uses and environmental conditions. For the most part, these designations will reflect current uses. For example, a residential property (either single- of multifamily) would be designated "shoreline residential."
Standards for marinas and other water-dependent uses will also be added to the SMP. There will likely be adjustments to existing rules based on how clear the existing standards are for property owners or new scientific understanding.
The shoreline management regulations that typically generate concern among waterfront property owners -- standards for docks, bulkheads and buffers or setbacks -- were changed when Bellevue's critical-areas ordinances were updated in 2006. These standards will be the starting point in the conversation around whether additional changes are appropriate in the context of shoreline management.
The addition of shoreline regulations would be based on experience gained from more than three years of permit review, significant changes in scientific understanding and changes in the shoreline environment identified in the inventory. Ideas advanced by the community that would achieve the same outcome at less cost or impact on private property owners are welcome. Unique areas such as Phantom Lake and portions of Newport Shores on Lake Washington may warrant specific standards.
Mitigation will only be required as part of major redevelopment or new development of a property. Minor repair and maintenance, such as changing the plumbing or electrical within an existing structure, and even some minor building expansions would not trigger large-scale mitigation of shorelines.
Shoreline conditions aren't the only impacts to the health of the shorelines, lakes and streams. What about the effects of citywide activities?
Certainly non-point pollution -- stormwater runoff -- has an impact on lakes and streams too. To minimize pollution from runoff, the state adopted new stormwater standards. In turn, the city last year, adopted new stormwater management requirements for construction, business and other activities. The city is also participating in an extensive regional public education campaign to make sure residents keep pollutants out of the storm drain.
If I don’t live on a shoreline, why does the SMP update matter to me?
Bellevue's lakes and streams are public resources that benefit everyone. Ever go to any of the city's waterfront parks? Wish you had more access to our lakes and streams? Want our lakes and streams to be free of pollution, with healthy populations of salmon, shellfish and other aquatic life? Your participation can help ensure that your interests in shoreline use and protection are heard and taken into account in the updated Shoreline Master Program where appropriate.
Seems like this process takes a long time.
As described above, there are many steps in the update process and at each of these steps public engagement is essential to the project's success. Because we value public engagement and involvement, a range of opportunities have been provided for participation and input.
The city hosted a boat tour of Lake Washington, conducted a public opinion phone survey, conducted focus groups with residential property owners and marina and construction industry representatives, and held several open houses.
To provide the Planning Commission and the public with a better understanding of the science supporting shoreline management, scientists and staff from a variety of state and regional agencies with a role in the management of water resources have made presentations to the commission. These presentations can be viewed on the project public involvement page.
How can I get involved?
Staff encourages anyone with an interest in the update to contact them directly at any time during the process. Planners Michael Paine and Heidi Bedwell (see contact information in the right column of this page) are working on this project. A range of perspectives are welcome and interested parties are encouraged to participate.
The Planning Commission is discussing the SMP update at many of its monthly meetings. Public input is welcome at those meetings. In addition, a citizen can provide written comment at any time. Learn about meetings and other details related to the SMP update at the Shoreline Master Plan page. Look for other news releases and mailings regarding future open houses and meetings.
The Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on a draft version of the updated SMP before it goes to the City Council for approval. Citizens will have an opportunity to provide formal comment during the hearing.
When will the new plan be adopted?
The project timeline calls for adoption by the City Council in December. This schedule is driven by state mandate, and staff must demonstrate to the Department of Ecology that continuous progress is being made toward update completion. After council adoption, Ecology will review the SMP for consistency with the state guidelines and will hold a public hearing. Final adoption will likely occur in 2011.
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