Shoreline program finally headed in the right direction

To the surprise of no one, except maybe some members of the Olympia Planning Commission, the state Department of Ecology has told the city it is “simply going in the wrong direction” in creating its first Shoreline Management Program (SMP).

No kidding.

After nearly three years of internal conflict and generally misinterpreting the primary intent of the Shoreline Management Act of 1971, the city’s planning commission turned in an unrealistic plan that DOE was certain to reject.

Never mind that the commission’s work on the SMP is already a year late. On that score, Olympia is in good company with several dozen other entities and has, arguably, the most complicated shoreline of the stragglers.

It just didn’t have to go this way. A more finished plan could have been produced by now if city councils, past and present, had taken the SMP away from an obviously dysfunctional planning commission sooner.

The previous council should have reined in the planning commission when it became clear the commission was incapable of finding agreement. Almost from the beginning, commissioners began taking sides on lines drawn, as opposed to valuing respectful engagement and diversity of opinion.

The council appointed a new commission this year, booting off pro-development voices at odds with most of the rest of the commission. Those commissioners may have been a source of discord, but incorporating their perspective might have produced a plan closer to the state’s expectations.

The new planning commission continued to disregard the SMA’s instructions to use existing conditions as a baseline for its shoreline plan. Instead, the aggressive conservation faction interpreted the rules as akin to restoring Budd Inlet to some pre-settlement period.

Crissy Bailey, a regional shoreline planner for DOE, gave the council a prime example of how the city’s planning commission went awry.

Bailey said the state told the city it would not accept an urban conservancy designation for the port property. Such a designation makes restoration of natural and open space the top priority.

But the planning commission recommended it anyway.

There’s no other way to assess this process other than the planning commission wasted a lot of time crafting a product that was DOA – dead on arrival at the DOE.

Council wisely gave its planning commission a narrower focus and set up strict reporting guidelines for its next project, updating the city’s Comprehensive Plan. And it has proposed trimming the commission from 11 members to nine. Time will tell if these changes have fixed the problem.

The City Council is now trying to get back on track by scheduling workshops with stakeholders over the next several weeks. That’s good. And, give Mayor Stephen Buxbaum some credit for urging expediency, when he said, “I don’t want to plow old ground again and again.”

A good place to start would be one-on-one meetings with the Port of Olympia. Gordon White, a program manager at DOE, couldn’t have been clearer on that point when he addressed the council last week.

White said the city’s SMP plan has to marry up with the port’s plan, and the two entities need to figure that out. He added an exclamation point: the state is expecting the city and the port to work together.

Having heard directly from DOE, the City Council now knows precisely what the state expects. It’s time to heed the mayor’s words and move on, and work with its shoreline partners toward a fresh and acceptable plan.

This council appears to be finally headed in the right direction.