Pierce County shoreline plan approved after seven-year marathon

It took more than seven years, a rejection from the state Department of Ecology and countless public meetings, but the Pierce County Council this week finally approved a major update to a comprehensive document meant to protect more than 1,000 miles of waterfront and associated animal habitat.

The Council’s 5 to 2 approval on Tuesday marked the first major overhaul of the Pierce County Shoreline Master Program since it was created in 1974. It governs everything from docks to marinas, from retaining walls to home construction, on saltwater and freshwater shores ranging from the Nisqually Reach to the White River Basin.

Republicans Joyce McDonald of Puyallup and Jim McCune of Graham voted against the update. McDonald didn’t comment at the meeting; McCune, who is a vehement property-rights defender, called it “unconstitutional.”

The plan now goes to Ecology officials for review and comment.

That the plan hadn’t been updated in more than 40 years is one reason it took so long to approve the changes. Another reason is that Ecology rejected the county’s initial update in early 2013, saying draft changes were unacceptable and had to be revised to meet state standards.

The state said the county must do more to protect Lake Tapps and Spanaway Lake. It said properties there must have 75-foot buffers between the shoreline and any new development or redevelopment.

This left residents worried the county would impose restrictions that would limit their ability to develop and lower their property values.

After hearing from outraged Lake Tapps residents, county officials convinced Ecology to reduce the buffer requirement to 50 feet.

A handful of Lake Tapps residents Tuesday thanked the council for listening to their concerns and fighting to reduce the restrictions.

Nearly a dozen people testified about the shoreline plan Tuesday; all applauded the council for taking the time to make sure the updates addressed public concerns.

One hot-button topic that surfaced during months of public meetings was the regulation of shellfish harvesting in the Gig Harbor area. Taylor Shellfish has applied to operate a 25-acre geoduck farm on Burley Lagoon.

Heather McFarlane, who lives on the lagoon, said Wednesday the county’s shoreline update incorporates many of the community’s concerns.

“I think they have given a lot more attention to the impact of aquaculture in residential areas,” she said of the shellfish regulations. “The general feeling is that, yes, there have been many strides made to protect everybody and still give the industry an opportunity to grow.”

Despite the improvements, McFarlane wants to see more done to limit the county’s administrative role and increase public involvement when an aquaculture permit application is filed for use along a residential shoreline.

Before approving the plan, most council members acknowledged there’s still room for improvement.

“It’s not perfect, but it is a large, giant step in the right direction to get protection for Puget Sound and citizens,” said Councilman Rick Talbert, D-Tacoma.

Talbert led the committee that held public meetings on the shoreline update.

“This document really is a result of citizen input and citizen outreach,” he said.

The council has agreed to hold another round of public meetings to discuss any changes that state officials could propose.