Comp Plan update: A stretched staff dealing with many masters

— by Matthew Gilbert, Orcas Issues reporter —

The update of the Comprehensive Plan (CP) continues to gain momentum as new data accumulates, issues become more real, and the public starts waking up to what’s at stake. Indeed, the longest session of 2019 took place last week, a likely harbinger of discussions to come.

Before proceeding, it may be helpful to remind readers that the Comp Plan has a number of specific elements that require periodic update as per the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA):

  • Population Projections
  • Land Capacity
  • Housing Needs
  • Capital Facilities and Utilities
  • Water Resources (fresh and marine)
  • Land Use and Transportation
  • Economic Development

Each of those realms depends on various degrees of research and fact-finding before Goals and Policies can be revised and specific actions and regulations incorporated. All of it then needs to comport with the recently revised County Vision Statement, itself open to both objective and subjective evaluation. It’s a grinding process that brings to mind the metaphor of “How sausage is made”: It can be hard to watch, but all of it impacts life on the ground here in San Juan County. Public participation is thus essential.

Back in the meeting room, a bottle of Jameson was being passed around . . . Oops, that was after the meeting.

Planning Director Erika Shook reported that the long-awaited Land Capacity Analysis, mapping developable and non-developable parcels by category, would be presented next month followed by a comment period for both parcel owners and the public. This will lead to a capacity estimate of number and kinds of dwellings and potential square feet of commercial space, “All conceptual at this point,” she was quick to emphasize. Planning Commission Chair Tim Blanchard agreed this would provide a good estimate of physical build-out, but “Will this product give the community what it wants: The number of possible residents?” Shook conceded it wouldn’t directly but vowed to deliver such an estimate.

She then confirmed that the Permit Tracking System for vacation rentals would be going online in a couple of weeks and be available to the public. “Approximately 1,000 permits now exist and another 200 are pending,” she said. However, not all permitted units are compliant as measured by the number of completed “certificates of compliance.” (Non-compliance triggers a judicial process that could result in the permit being revoked.) Of the 1,084 currently permitted, only 500 have submitted certificates. “We may have a compliance problem,” she admitted, though no one knows just how active or not these units are or how much of the housing stock they are cannibalizing. Though it may not be timely, more data is on the way as the upcoming tourism survey of residents will have a block of questions asking about short-term rentals.

In the meantime, the “c” word was raised – capping or even reducing the number of permits. (According to Shook, about 60 new permit applications come in each year.) Georgette Wong asked if staff was aware of what other counties and districts were doing about this issue. Shook replied that the department did some research last year but that the ultimate decision rests with the County Commissioners.

With mounting pressure on planning department staff to both complete existing projects and potentially take on new ones, resource issues were raised. Fortunately, two new hires will help lessen the load: One replaces a position lost last year and the other will focus on vacation rental permitting and enforcement, though as Shook explained, “both will be cross-trained to deal with short- and long-term planning issues.” These are key developments as Blanchard expressed concern that the update process will be challenged to “stay on the critical path. We want a thoughtful, comprehensive approach [to the CP update] but we need enough time for that. I don’t want us to get backed into a corner.”

Commissioner Brent Snow then offered “my fundamental critique of this process: How can we expect staff to be comprehensive without enough clear prioritization? Everything can’t be equally important. What is most critical?” Blanchard responded that “once we get more facts, we can be smarter and quicker about this.”

At the last meeting, department staff delivered their recommendations on six “Proposed Text Amendments” to the Comp Plan. Today it was the Planning Commission’s opportunity to weigh in on those determinations, but the nexus of conversation swirled around one in particular: 19 – 002 (Joe Symons, et. al) regarding “build-out analysis” and the impacts of possible future development. Of the 29 comments that came in on the various docket requests, 28 focused on that one.

Commissioner Snow voiced what others in the room were likely wondering when he asked, “Why does this particular docket issue keep coming up? What’s the conundrum? It feels like a reasonable request.” The subtext goes to how the public perceives what the planning department and the County Council are doing or not doing about these foundational issues. What ensued was a long discussion sparked by Planning Manager Linda Kuller who defended the process that staff has been following. “We’ve been methodical and open, acting on behalf of the County Commissioners,” she said. “We’re not diminishing those concerns, we’re not blowing anything off. These issues are part of the current update process and we fully intend to engage the public on them.”

After some technical discussion on what the Docket is designed to do, the commission pressed staff to make sure that the issue of growth and impacts would be fully addressed, including the addition of necessary “analytical pieces.” “We still believe that all this will be covered,” responded planner Adam Zack. “It’s part of the scope of this work.”

One starts to get the impression that an over-worked staff is walking a fine line trying to balance GMA requirements with what they are hearing and sensing from the Council and the detailed objectives of the Planning Commission; while both groups represent the public, their influence and perspectives are not always in sync. As reliable data keeps building and the various sub-elements of the Plan are completed, key challenges – and hopefully solutions – are expected to become clearer.

There were two interesting postscripts to the meeting:

Attorney Stephanie O’Day, representing Orcas clients with properties adjoining the Orcas Airport, bemoaned the lengthy process and regulatory burdens of trying to get clarity on what is allowable use in the airport overlay district. “This has taken years and we still don’t have an answer.” Blanchard wondered if the Port’s Master Plan might be competing with the County’s Comprehensive Plan and that “our job is to address the public need. But since the Port is going forward, we may need to deal with this issue sooner.” Linda Kuller replied that changing the code regarding allowable uses in the Airport Safety Zone would be “a complex and time-consuming process” that would involve both state and federal law and “we can’t take on more code issues right now.”

Finally, after the recent drama of Orcas Road losing a sacred stretch of canopied roadway, Blanchard reported that the Planning Commission did select a three-person group to work with Colin Huntemer of Public Works on incorporating guidelines from the “Scenic Roads Manual” into the pursuit and planning of future projects.

The next meeting of the Commission takes place on June 21.

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Peg Manning

Again, Matthew, your reporting represents the ongoing investment of a significant amount of time and a good deal of depth–thank you. I take issue with the language “how much of the housing stock [vacation rentals] are cannibalizing,” however. Vacation rentals, whether by residents who rent out their homes for the season, or owners who rent out what will be their retirement homes, or long-term locals who have decided to buy and maintain a rental property as a form of savings, do not cannibalize housing stock. In fact, with very few exceptions at the margins, vacation rentals would not be available… Read more »