Pacific County recently finished upatding their Shoreline Master Plan (SMP) and received the necessary approvals from the Department of Ecology, which is a big achievement culminating a nearly three-year effort. The previous plan was approved in 2001 and was in need of a broad rewrite to reflect new science and evolving community sensitivities to the importance of shoreline protections. It can be challenging to get excited about SMPs but they are a very important tool that allows for smart and strategic development while protecting critical shoreline resources, encompassing policies and direction for permitted actions and uses in streams and ocean areas under shoreline jurisdiction. For a deeper dive into the nuts and bolts these plans, see our previous blog post on SMPs.

Every county and municipality with shorelines that meet the minimum standard are required by the State of Washington to have an SMP, which must also be approved by the Washington Department of Ecology. Each of the state’s 239 SMP jurisdictions are required to update their SMPs regularly. Pacific and Grays Harbor counties were some of the very last areas to begin their updates, and as you could imagine, these planning processes can take some time to finalize. Pacific County began their update in early 2014. Grays Harbor began about the same time but it will still be awhile before it’s fully approved. Today we will be covering the process in Pacific County but make sure to check back here as we will tell Grays Harbor’s story in the future.

The rugged North Head in Pacific County.

These plans are not created in secrecy. In fact, they are required by law to have public participation plans and engage stakeholders in various ways. With many different interests at the table, it can become contentious to say the least. It just so happened that early in the process Pacific County was having significant opposition to the update and their were rumors of deep skepticism and even potential lawsuits. SMP stakeholders wrestled with how to change the process to ensure community voices from local industry and environmental constituencies were better represented.  The changes in process to create more listening opportunities for stakeholders led to a collaborative path to completing the update with community approval.

Kelly Rupp facilitated the SMP process in Pacific County and I asked him if he would be willing to answer a series of questions about their efforts. Fortunately, he agreed! In fact, he provided such great answers to my questions, that we will be breaking this post into two parts. Stay tuned for the second part, which will follow in the coming weeks.

And with that introduction, we will dive into the questions:

Q: How did your citizen working group operate?

A: Reflecting on the situation that PacCo found itself in on January 2015 (vocal subgroups threatening legal action; six months left in which to complete a quality draft submission to meet Ecology deadlines; out-of-county leadership for the process unable to devote sufficient resources to address these many special interest groups), an urgent revised strategy was needed for workgroup operation. The Nature Conservancy (TNC) took the lead in proposing a structure for working on the plan. This process called for a community-selected volunteer “chair”, subcommittee engagement, and an “all-in” effort to complete the plan draft by the June deadline. The entire SMP committee met monthly thereafter, with subcommittees meeting as needed (often bi-weekly in the early winter months) as we found ourselves under the gun with respect to schedule (i.e., to complete a draft submission to Ecology by the end-of-biennium).

Membership in the SMP committee had been established by the Board of County Commissioners nomination/assignment in 2014. Membership in the advisory subcommittees was less formal and more flexible, allowing additional voices/perspectives from constituent groups (e.g., shellfish operators, fishermen, recreation, conservation groups) to be added.    

In all cases – and for all meetings – WA OPMA (Open Public Meeting Act) processes were carefully followed. Transparency in conducting the SMP update was a priority, given community perceptions of the closed-door process in the last 2001 update.

Oyster growing is a major shoreline use in Pacific County that falls under SMPs.

Q: What kind of folks did you have on the committee?

A: With the formation of subcommittees to address particular sections/topics/issues, we were able to assemble more active/enthused contributors whose interests aligned with these specific SMP subtopics.  Very importantly, community leaders (as locally perceived within their peer and industry groups) were enlisted (even cajoled) to engage as we recognized the critical need to build credibility and legitimacy for the plan’s outputs.

Q: What were the biggest changes to your county’s SMP?

A: Overall, the addition of “policy” dialogue to each regulatory section was perhaps the most significant change. That is, in addition to specific regulatory language about “do’s and don’ts,” each topic included a “policy” narrative to describe the intent of the rules being detailed therein.

Two other mega changes deserve mention:

  • We significantly expanded the Environmental Designations (well beyond Ecology’s general guidelines) to recognize the unique conservation needs, ecological concerns, and economic drivers of various regions within the county.   These eleven (11) designations came about after lengthy debate led to awkward conditional considerations of “if here, then this is okay, but if there, then that’s not okay…” The unique geography and many different types of aquatic and shoreline environments in PacCo affirm this careful dissection of uses/permissions/protections.
  • The “Ocean Section” was directly added as a separate chapter to the SMP in recognition of truly unique protections needed for aquatic regions of the county, which extend fully three miles nautical miles ocean-ward to the limit of the State’s westward boundaries. This section also covers the uses/protections needed at the Columbia River mouth. Because of the county’s (and state) border with Oregon and “federal border” with the USA (at three miles west into the Ocean, there are interstate commerce and federal agency concerns to explicitly address – most notably the Coastal Zone Management Act’s directives on “consistency” of federal actions relative to state-approved shoreline management plans, and the Army Corps of Engineers dredging projects in the Columbia River).

Q: What sections/issues caused the most debate?

A: Industrial activities in aquatic regions (especially Willapa Bay and the Ocean) were hotly debated. This included ocean energy production (wind and/or wave turbines: would these interfere with fishing interests?), finfish aquaculture (salmon pens), and sea horticulture (confined areas for kelp or seaweed culturing). Technical issues surrounding shellfish production (particularly the intersection of processing activities with aquatic areas) also required careful deliberation and thoughtful wording.

Shorebirds love the Pacific County coastline.

Q: What do you like about the final plan?

A: Dedicated environmental designations for all our key aquatic regions (Willapa Bay, Ocean, and Columbia River) ensure that unique policy/intent is represented comprehensively for each region. Constituent groups perceive that “their needs” are fully represented and captured without obfuscation in the plan.  

Q: What was good about the process?

A: The use of subcommittees ensured that (a) participants were motivated to engage, since the subject matter was a direct/personal “care about”, and (b) we were able to gather domain expertise about particular subjects that allowed decisions on policy and regulation to be confidently informed.    

Additionally, “field trips” were used to bring subcommittees (and state Ecology representatives as well as county staff) to particular locations in the county where first-hand viewing of industry, development, and conservation concerns could be witnessed.  This ensured a comprehensive understanding of issues by all stakeholders.   

Throughout the entire process, the participation from Ecology was invaluable (“what about this…” and “would this pass muster…” and “why cannot this language be used…”). Ecology should be leveraged as a partner, not an adversary.   

Q: What was bad or could have been better?

A: The overall SMP process squandered its first year (2014) with ineffectual public outreach and engagement, resulting in a stressful “crunch time” intensity in early 2015 which – while producing a quality product – would have benefited from more public sharing (e.g., more news articles and public presentations to local groups).