The desire to protect wetlands was agreed upon at Wednesday’s Clatsop County Board of Commissioners’ meeting.
But what that would look like for Arch Cape and Cove Beach was not.
A recent environmental study has caused friction between neighbors – and anger about potential changes to land use.
The county board heard from frustrated landowners who said their neighbors have been greedy and instigators in the matter. But members of the Ecola Creek Watershed Council expressed that the infighting should have no bearing on the need for action.
Ultimately, the county commissioners delayed a decision that would increase county regulatory involvement to allow for more public comment.
Jennifer Bunch, senior planner for the county planning department, gave an overview of a recent wetland inventory of the Arch Cape and Cove Beach area. Pacific Habitat Services, an environmental consultant group, conducted the analysis and evaluated the vegetation, wildlife and water quality to determine protective measures.
They identified nearly 40 acres of wetlands during the study and determined that nearly 27 could be deemed significant wetlands. A significant habitat is defined under Goal 5, a statewide planning goal for conservation by the Department of Land Conservation and Development.
The planning goal describes how cities and counties are to regulate and zone land to conserve habitat such as wetlands.
The wetland inventory was submitted to the Department of State Lands and was adopted for state maps of the area.
“Once the wetland inventory was approved by DSL, the county began using it as part of the statewide inventory,” Bunch said.
But the Ecola Creek Watershed Council and the county Planning Commission recommended to commissioners that they formally adopt the wetland inventory, which would potentially increase regulation of development on the land.
Landowners in the Arch Cape and Cove Beach area showed up and expressed their frustrations. Some had purchased land years ago and hadn’t developed it yet. They were told at the time of purchasing what regulations were in place and how they could build. But now they feared that will all change if the inventory is formally adopted.
Kathryn O’Driscoll, who owns property at Cove Beach, requested that an economic analysis be done to see how it would affect local and state government and the landowners in the area.
“This opens up a Pandora’s Box,” she said about any precedent it might set.
She said that state and Department of Environmental Quality already have rigorous zoning regulations.
“I was fully aware of those requirements and prepared to comply with them when I bought my land,” she said.
Many owners mentioned Measure 49, a ballot measure meant to provide compensation for claims based on land use regulations. It was unclear if changes would qualify owners for compensation.
In addition, speakers expressed that the matter was unfair, saying that neighbors with property already developed are trying to keep the land around them bare.
“This wetlands issue has nothing to do with the public good,” said Reba Owen, a resident of Warrenton whose family has owned property at Falcon Cove since the 1940s.
She echoed the concerns of others that believe there is a conflict of interest between neighbors who own property and their involvement in the process of adopting the wetlands inventory.
“I hope you on the commission will make an intelligent and fair decision,” she said.
Michael Manzulli, chairman of the Ecola Creek Watershed Council, said that the group believes adoption of the local wetland inventory is necessary to remedy the disparity between protection of wetlands in the north county area and the south.
“That simply needs to be corrected in some way,” he said.
The watershed council, a volunteer-based group, recommended adoption because of the benefits it would create, which members cited as protecting public health and safety through protection of water quality as well as the vital habitat
for wildlife species, many of which are endangered, they said.
“Building in buffered uplands, not filling wetlands – these are really important things to do for you neighborhood and your community,” he said.
Manzulli said it was unfortunate that neighborhood tensions had risen, but that action still needs to be taken to increase protection.
“We need to be smart and decide where we’re going to allow building.”
Manzulli said that DSL does not do an adequate job and that it would be better to have county oversight when assessing the zoning requirements.
The county Planning Commission recommended a safe harbor ordinance, which does not require the same rigorous analysis but would take precautionary zoning measures to ensure protection of the wetlands.
But those wishing to build on land in the wetlands are already subjected to state regulation and the commission was given the option of taking no action, which Bunch indicated was the county staff recommendation.
“Staff opinions were based on the regulations that are already in place,” she said.
The commissioners deliberated and expressed that because of the amount of public testimony and the seriousness of the matter, they would hold off on making a decision until a March board meeting. The extra time is meant for additional public comment and consideration of options.
“I certainly appreciate what wetlands are and I’m interested in seeing them be protected,” Commissioner Dirk Rohne said. But he pointed out the county staff’s decision and that DSL and the federal government are already involved in the regulation process.
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.