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County SAO ordinance update stirs citizen debate

SAO ordinance by Jeff Switzer
Should Class III wetlands be developed without regulation? Should the county allow Class II streams to be relocated?
   These questions are being asked by developers, landowners, and environmentalists, because after five years of enforcement, King County staff are updating the Sensitive Areas Ordinance (SAO), taking into consideration the suggestions for improvement they have received since its passage in 1991.
   About 25 area residents met with county staff on May 8 to discuss their concerns and offer input to the working draft of the ordinance, which is on a tour of six areas in the county. The workshops continue until June, prioritizing changes based on comment from area residents, developers, and environmentalists, while attempting to articulate the controversies.
   "We will continue to have buffers," said Claire Dyckman, from the Environmental Education section of the Department of Development and Environmental Services. "The issues are how to simplify (the ordinance), decrease the costs, have less duplication, make it clearer for staff to use, and create flexibility and protection for landowners."
   Different areas have faced different issues: The meeting held in Carnation focused on flooding; Maple Valley wanted more equity between urban and rural decisions. The Northshore area was concerned about the burden of the ordinance on small property owners and wanted more flexibility for owner/occupants, contending there were undue constraints on what they could do with their property. Others voiced their desire to protect urban wetlands.
   The feedback the staff has gotten to date is being compiled and sent to a focus group composed of rural property owners and citizens, developers, utility officials, and environmentalists, who are contributing their perspective rather than acting as representatives for their organizations.
   "We're looking for creative problem solving at the table," said Dyckman, "individuals who come from different viewpoints."
   This umbrella focus group is prioritizing the issues that will go to the King County Council this summer and working with staff to help categorize long-term issues needing analysis and legal interpretations.