Washington’s shoreline master plans: Can resource management and community growth find synergy?

LAKE Shoreline: Moses Lake is one of the state’s largest natural fresh water lakes with over 120 miles of shoreline covering 6,500 acres. Photo by Wayne Wright.

LAKE Shoreline: Moses Lake is one of the state’s largest natural fresh water lakes with over 120 miles of shoreline covering 6,500 acres. Photo by Wayne Wright.

by Wayne Wright, Seattle, Washington

Washington faces a balancing act between managing community growth and protecting about 28,000 miles of shorelines. By 2014, local jurisdictions must update their Shoreline Master Plans to comply with state laws. The update process can be smooth sailing for some or challenging and contentious for others. To see how jurisdictions are faring, GeoEngineers, Inc, a consulting engineering firm specializing in environmental issues, conducted an informal snapshot assessment earlier this year. This article is based on interviews with individuals from nine jurisdictions across the state.

History of efforts

Community planners have the difficult job of guiding community growth and happiness while protecting the public interest in the natural resources and ecosystem functions associated with shoreline areas.

To help, the Washington State Shoreline Management Act of 1972 (RCW 90.58) sets goals and objectives for managing shoreline activities for local jurisdictions. All cities and counties in Washington must meet the requirements of the Shoreline Management Act. The Washington Department of Ecology oversees the administration of the act and assists city and county governments with technical support and funding for shoreline administration.

The Shoreline Management Act was developed in the 1970s and changed little until court actions in 2002 and 2003 mandated the state to place a higher emphasis on managing shoreline environments for natural resource protection. In 2003, the Shoreline Master Program Guidelines were adopted by the Department of Ecology, providing the agency with stronger authority to approve the plans and mandating an update schedule.

The court-ordered schedule for completing a update requires local jurisdictions to be fully compliant by 2014. So far, as of Sept. 4, only 83 of the 262 plans have been approved. The comprehensive updates required by the act are generally three-year planning processes, with some jurisdictions taking more time. In addition, updates must be completed every eight years after initial adoption.

Assessment snapshot

The upcoming 2014 deadline and related work in shoreline areas prompted GeoEngineers to contact a variety of Washington cities and counties from the west and east side of the Cascade mountain range and several agreed to an interview on their update process. These interviews do not connote a scientific approach and are intended to provide a snapshot of the various realities faced by jurisdictions and how they have adapted to meet the Department of Ecology’s requirements. All participants provided input in the spirit of improving the process and meeting public objectives at the state and local levels. Their comments reflect their individual views and experiences, but are not necessarily the official position of the jurisdiction where they are employed.

MARINE Shoreline: Jefferson County has 250 miles of marine shoreline as shown above, 22 miles of lakeshore on 14 lakes and 742 river miles of stream and river shoreline. Photo by Wayne Wright.

MARINE Shoreline: Jefferson County has 250 miles of marine shoreline as shown above, 22 miles of lakeshore on 14 lakes and 742 river miles of stream and river shoreline. Photo by Wayne Wright.

11 common themes emerged

  1. All agreed that jurisdictions needed to update their Shoreline Master Plans. All recognized the outdated condition of their plan and lack of advanced scientific information that had been developed to assist with shoreline management.
  2. Rarely is there enough money and time. The plan update requires several technical steps that include the shoreline inventory, status assessment and designation review, then code drafting. In addition, the public involvement and engagement process must be overlaid on the entire project. Time and expenses are difficult to predict as issues and elements raised by the public, elected officials or Ecology grow to a heightened level of scrutiny and discussion.
  3. Tracking comments and decisions is important. The Shoreline Master Plans update requires several specific items each with a public review step. These items commonly include the shoreline inventory, a compilation of best available science, shoreline designation maps, and the actual Shoreline Master Program document that sets local rules and regulations.
  4. Support from the Department of Ecology was variable. This seemed to be a function of individual connection between the jurisdiction and the department representatives, as well as how contentious the issues had become with land owners.
  5. Application of “best available science” is vaguely defined and inconsistently administered. The state Department of Ecology’s description for best available science is vague and reflects a variety of perspectives and interpretations. It seems that individual department representatives accept, reject, deny, and modify best available science based on the jurisdiction’s specific situation. In nearly all cases where it became an issue, the local jurisdiction had to unravel the emotions and technical issues that result from multiple, conflicting best available science direction.
  6. Multiple ecological functions and associated science do not lend well to a one-size-fits-all situation. This was especially true with the more complex jurisdictions with complex shorelines. Jurisdictions that have shorelines in public ownership or already fully developed had little issue here, since there was little they could do. Larger jurisdictions with much more undeveloped (or planned for development) private property parcels encountered the need for more flexibility and opportunity to balance the public’s needs and private property rights.
  7. Unresolved conflicts between overlying regulations pose limitations to future interpretations. Inherent conflicts arise between the governing laws for managing natural resources at the local level. All jurisdictions asked for more help from the State of Washington to bring these laws into alignment so local regulations can be simpler and more easily implemented. Conflicts are known to occur between the Shoreline Management Act, Clean Water Act, Growth Management Act, and local Critical Areas Ordinances.
  8. Local community desires and local conditions are not always accommodated. Americans are fiercely independent and want to employ creativity and address local needs with local resources. Several communities experienced a “strong-hand” approach by the state Department of Ecology that dictated using the Guidelines in certain ways in order for the draft Shoreline Master Plan to be approved.
  9. Shoreline inventory done at the local level worked best. More detail with existing shoreline conditions meant more accurate environmental designations, better defined management opportunities, and improved community understanding of the Shoreline Master Plan direction. When high-level inventory was used, local communities pointed out clear inaccuracies and had a hard time accepting plan’s contents as they did not believe the base data.
  10. Public outreach is critically important. As can be discerned from all of the comments received, local planning officials are keenly attuned to listening to their constituents. Engaging the public in a meaningful manner to an effective end is not easy. It often takes all the dedication, drive, care, and understanding planning departments have—and then some.
  11. All of the jurisdictions interviewed were quite proud of the submitted plans. They worked hard and are dedicated to their communities.

Lessons learned

When asked about the most important lessons learned in the Shoreline Master Plans update process, those interviewed all focused on a better start-up to the update process. Comments included:

  • Do not start until you are ready and make a strong and well-founded game plan before you start
  • Do not copy another Shoreline Master Plan just because it was adopted
  • Prepare a sound and effective public outreach plan before you start
  • Consider a focused approach to strong stakeholder groups
  • Plan for and track changes, comments, and input along the way
  • Define roles and expectations regarding participation and communication between the local jurisdiction, the Department of Ecology and citizenry
  • Engage ecology, stakeholders, and other experts early and often was effective with several jurisdictions

New approaches

Through the course of the interviews, many innovations and interesting collaborations were discovered, including:

  • The Chelan County Regional Plan participants devised a truly innovative program to put each draft Shoreline Master Plan to the “reality test” with specific scenario permits. Working together and approaching shorelines regulations with real permit scenarios resulted in a more robust and easier-to-implement update. Scenario testing proved to be good training for Shoreline Master Plans, as well as general permit processing.
  • Jefferson County found that the public involvement and education process was overly complex and contentious due to differing data and conjecture. To address this issue, they developed a Watershed Stewardship Resource Center (http://www.co.jefferson.wa.us/commdevelopment/WSRC.htm) filled with technical information and examples to help with public outreach and education. This has proved to be a valuable resource to Jefferson County and it will remain intact once the Shoreline Master Plan process is complete.

Achieving synergy

Can community prosperity and shoreline regulation find synergy? In Washington, and perhaps elsewhere in America, it is truly hit or miss. The greatest synergy with community prosperity and shoreline management is within truly mature and fully developed communities. Areas that have their shorelines encumbered, developed, or designated prior to their incorporation or those older communities that have fully grandfathered developed conditions seem to have the easiest path to meeting the multiple objectives and mandates of the Shoreline Management Act. Since these areas are already “spoken for” there seems to be less to discuss. Their future growth potential is already framed. Previously undesignated land or land with a proposed zone change seemed to require the most communication and coordination to reach consensus.

Where land meets water, an intersection of human and non-human resources collide. This collision of interest, activity, use, general well-being—and even survival—creates the challenges of management of human population growth and activities. Achieving synergy at these intersections requires a better understanding and communication of the human participants, more flexibility and control over litigation threats, and significantly more innovation to solve the problems faced.


Wayne S. Wright, PWS is a fisheries and wetlands scientist with GeoEngineers, Inc. He is a technical expert who works with teams on complex natural resources issues.


Published in the October/November 2013 Issue

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