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Originally published July 28, 2013 at 8:03 PM | Page modified July 28, 2013 at 9:34 PM

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Bellevue, state at odds over shoreline plan

Bellevue and state Ecology officials don’t see eye-to-eye on the city’s Shoreline Master Program plan after changes were shaped by property-rights advocates on the Planning Commission.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Bellevue’s proposed shoreline plan has run into problems with the state Department of Ecology after the city Planning Commission eased provisions that had rankled lakefront-property owners.

Ecology, which must approve the updated Shoreline Master Program before it can become law, has found numerous provisions that may not comply with state law and regulations.

The state agency also complained that it wasn’t kept informed of those changes.

Although there is agreement that many of Ecology’s concerns can be easily resolved, others appear to be more substantial.

Among them: Ecology wants clearer criteria for a property owner to show that an erosion-control structure is needed to protect a home, and limits on a process that would allow property owners to depart from regulations.

Ecology is overseeing revisions to Bellevue’s shoreline plan, which is aimed at protecting bodies of water within the city’s borders. But a draft plan created by the Planning Commission drew sharp opposition from Lake Sammamish homeowners who feared it would unnecessarily restrict the use of their property.

In response, the Planning Commission rewrote parts of the plan as suggested by property owners.

Ecology has taken issue with some of those changes.

The Bellevue City Council this month directed staff to open up informal talks with Ecology to learn more about the agency’s concerns and “educate” regulators on how to find parts of the plan that Ecology couldn’t find. City Council members have offered conflicting opinions on whether the plan will have to be substantially revised to receive state approval.

Deputy Mayor Jennifer Robertson, the City Council’s liaison to the Planning Commission, told the council she was confident the plan could receive Ecology approval without a major overhaul.

“It is environmentally friendly, it is fair. When you look at it with the lens of all the other things we do in Bellevue, it will be a fantastic plan — with a few tweaks,” Robertson said.

Councilmember Claudia Balducci disagreed, saying it looked to her like the city and Ecology were “pretty darn far apart. ... ”

“It’s concerning that it appears that the communication between the city and DOE dropped off somewhere after 2011 and stopped completely,” Balducci said. “The key thing is going to be communication, communication, communication.”

Councilmember John Chelminiak said he counted 101 elements of the plan deemed out of compliance by Ecology. The council has not yet discussed the substance of the plan.

Ecology officials said it isn’t unusual for the agency to have numerous questions and concerns about a proposed shoreline plan.

Bellevue may have to face a difficult task showing that its proposed vegetation rules — considerably less restrictive than those of neighboring cities with Ecology-approved plans — would meet the state litmus test that the plan allow “no net loss” of ecological function.

Rewriting the rules

Ecology is partially funding and overseeing the revamping of shoreline plans for 262 cities and counties that date back to the 1970s. Those plans spell out how jurisdictions will protect water bodies, which in Bellevue’s case are Lake Washington, Lake Sammamish and Phantom Lake.

Bellevue’s Planning Commission, after three years of work, released a draft plan in 2011 that Ecology plan reviewer Joe Burcar said “was fairly close to what we were expecting of the update.”

But that proposal ran into huge opposition from homeowners along Lake Sammamish, who said it wasn’t backed up by reliable science and would make it difficult for them to remodel their homes or build patios, protective walls and docks.

The Planning Commission, reshaped by appointments of new members with a strong property-rights orientation, rewrote hot-button parts of the plan as suggested by property owners.

Planning commissioners nominated by City Councilmember Kevin Wallace and approved by the council, included former Republican gubernatorial nominee John Carlson and former state Republican Party Chairwoman Diane Tebelius. Wallace, at the time, was the council’s liaison to the commission.

Before her appointment, Tebelius had appeared before the commission as a board member of the Washington Sensible Shorelines Association, which organized an aggressive grass-roots campaign for less onerous restrictions.

Wallace said his choices restored a balance on the Planning Commission between environmentalists and property-rights advocates. Chelminiak complained he was stacking the commission with members who shared a single point of view.

Searching for compromise

Tebelius and other property owners were particularly upset the 2011 draft plan would have required most new houses to be 50 feet from the water and created a 25-foot “vegetation-conservation area” in which native plants must be retained or replaced if the area is disturbed.

When the Planning Commission finished working on the plan this year, the setback had been reduced to 25 feet and the native-vegetation requirement was eliminated for construction outside the setback.

That’s likely to be a problem for Ecology, which in May rejected a Mercer Island mandate of an amount of native vegetation equal in size to a 15-inch-wide strip along the water when redeveloping.

The Mercer Island City Council last month changed the plan to require that half of a 20-foot buffer consist of native plants.

The plans of three cities with Lake Sammamish shoreline — Issaquah, Redmond and Sammamish — all contain native-vegetation requirements in their Ecology-approved plans.

Until Bellevue does more analysis of the environmental effects of its plan, Ecology officials aren’t saying whether they will require a native-vegetation mandate. Native plants are viewed as beneficial because they reduce stormwater flow, filter out impurities, provide nutrient sources for animals and don’t require pesticides or herbicides.

The Planning Commission voted 7-0 for the proposed plan after a last-minute change required that half of the 25-foot setback be “greenscape,” which can be lawn.

“There were three of us who said we wouldn’t vote for this thing unless we got some sort of vegetation, some sort of, ‘You can’t pave over to the ordinary high-water mark,’ ” said former commissioner Pat Sheffels.

Tebelius said of the plan, “Not everything in there is stuff I wanted. That’s OK. Not everything is the way anyone else wanted it, but it’s a good, solid document.”

In May, Ecology gave Bellevue a 46-page outline of which parts of the shoreline plan looked like they would pass muster and which wouldn’t.

The state agency also expressed concern about “the city’s lack of coordination with Ecology” while the commission rewrote the plan.

When Bellevue Land Use Director Carol Helland objected to the Ecology letter, she received an apology from Ecology Regional Section Manager Erik Stockdale for surprising her. Stockdale reaffirmed the agency’s willingness to help the city adopt a plan Ecology would approve and would defend in the event of a lawsuit.

Helland said revisions to the plan and agendas of Planning Commission meetings were available to everyone interested in it, including Ecology.

Now both sides say they’ve dusted themselves off after a misunderstanding, and plan to work together.

“We look forward to reinitiating our communication with the city staff on this,” Ecology’s Stockdale said. “It has gone dark for a little bit, but we certainly like working with the city, and we look forward to getting them over the goal line.”

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com

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