Lake Tapps residents fight for shoreline space

At issue is a proposed buffer that would accommodate vegetation while restricting lake-front development

Staff writerNovember 10, 2013 

Lake Tapps residents say the state is trying to take away their property rights by imposing new shoreline regulations that could restrict or halt their ability to make improvements or build along the lake front.

“The property rights of every citizen that owns property on the lake are going to be subject to severe restrictions,” said Leon Stucki, vice president of the Lake Tapps Community Council.

The issue will be the focus Thursday night at a community meeting called by Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, and her son, Pierce County Council member Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake.

Pierce County is proposing a 50-foot buffer along Lake Tapps and a 75-foot buffer along Spanaway Lake as part of its revised changes to shoreline policies — the first such changes in nearly 40 years.

The county had already proposed in 2012 adding 75-foot buffers along saltwater lots with the residential shoreline environment designation. The new shoreline buffers would replace 50-foot setbacks on county shorelines.

A buffer is a relatively undisturbed area with vegetation that separates development from the shoreline. A setback is a less restrictive designation that permits features such as decks and gazebos.

The proposed lake buffers were driven by recommendations from the state Department of Ecology, said Debby Hyde, of the county’s Planning and Land Services department.

Ecology told the county in February that its draft of changes to shoreline policies was unacceptable and must be revised to meet state standards. Among the deficiencies it cited was the county’s failure to require vegetation between the shoreline and any houses that are built or expanded on Lake Tapps and Spanaway Lake.

Last month, the county’s Planning Commission recommended reducing the proposed buffer for Lake Tapps from 75 to 50 feet because the lake is heavily developed and its water level is controlled.

Lake Tapps is a 4.5-square-mile reservoir in East Pierce County.

The state-mandated Shoreline Master Program update is the first revision of policies to regulate shoreline in unincorporated Pierce County since they were adopted in 1974. In 2003, the Legislature set up a timetable for local governments to update their shoreline master programs. Pierce County’s update started in 2007.

The County Council is expected to vote on the plan early next year and forward it to the state for approval. A council subcommittee has already recommended changes.

Hyde said the buffer on Lake Tapps doesn’t alter existing uses, but applies only to new development. Many people on the lake own old cabins, and they could be expanded with approval, she said.

Chuck Romeo, who has lived on Lake Tapps for 45 years, called the change “ridiculous.”

“It’s been this way forever,” said Romeo, president of the Community Council. “Why change it now?”

“If people want to build on an undeveloped lot, what are they going to do? Are they going to take a bus to the lake?” Romeo said, noting that the rules could force people to build farther from the water.

Both Romeo and Stucki, who lives on Snag Island, said the buffer will take away their property rights. The Community Council includes representatives from seven homeowners associations.

Kim Van Zwalenburg, of the Department of Ecology, said the agency didn’t dictate specific buffer sizes but expects the county to demonstrate their proposal makes sense. That includes showing that the county’s plan will achieve “no net loss of shoreline ecological function.”

“We don’t want ecological conditions to deteriorate any further,” said Van Zwalenburg, a regional shoreline planner.

As to the charge Ecology is taking away people’s property rights with a buffer, Van Zwalenburg said, “there are going to be people who say that’s a taking.”

But Van Zwalenburg said people will be able to keep their homes and yards as they are now. They will be able to rebuild docks. And they can build homes on undeveloped lots in line with or a little bit set back from existing homes, Van Zwalenburg said.

That depends on the size of the buffer, Sen. Roach said.

“In some cases on small lots, you render the lot useless,” she said.

Lake Tapps residents “don’t know that they’re going to have their property rights diminished without compensation,” she said. “Anytime potential for use is taken from a property owner, then the value of the land has been diminished.”

Councilman Roach said he’s heard few complaints about the shoreline buffers from residents in other areas of the county because they don’t know about them. He said his goal is to comply with state law while doing “everything possible to protect property rights of those that are going to be affected.”

Stucki said he’s also upset homeowners weren’t notified about the shoreline changes.

“Nobody bothered to tell us about this until after the fact,” he said. “It was very upsetting that we weren’t notified.”

Sen. Roach said she’s considering legislation that would require notice far enough in advance in cases like this that homeowners could decide to build or sell.

Hyde said the county sent out 12,000 mailers in June 2012 about the update to every person who owned any property on any shoreline.

Stucki said he doesn’t recall getting one. He said he’s talked to at least 50 Lake Tapps residents who said they didn’t get a notice.

Hyde said her department has double-checked and confirmed the mailings went out.

But that mailing was sent the year before Ecology rejected the draft and the county developed the Lake Tapps buffer proposal in response to the agency’s criticisms.

Hyde said the county could have sent a later notice about the buffer to Lake Tapps property owners, but it did not.

“Legally, it wasn’t necessary,” she said. “The facts are they were caught unaware and frustrated by that.”

IF YOU GO

What: Meeting about shoreline restrictions for Lake Tapps.

When: 7 p.m. Thursday.

Where: Dieringer Heights Elementary School, 21727 34th St. E., Lake Tapps.

Who: Sen. Pam Roach, Pierce County Councilman Dan Roach, Lake Tapps Community Council. More information: bit.ly/1hnmtCc.

Steve Maynard: 253-597-8647
steve.maynard@thenewstribune.com
@TNTstevemaynard

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