Almost a year ago I posted a blog saying a fond farewell to Mar Vista, a special property on the westside of San Juan Island that for many decades was a rustic resort. Despite the wishes of many that hoped to see it become another of the island's beautiful preserves, it was sold to private owners. Through the grapevine I heard that they were a couple who had recently won the lottery, and it sounded like they would be good environmental stewards of the land. Unfortunately, that image was quickly shattered.
At the end of 2013 the local media brought attention to the fact that a portion of the shoreline on the Mar Vista property had been illegally clearcut. You can see some photos of the result in a San Juan Islander article here. Outraged, many of us hoped officials would come down hard on the violations. Even more outrageous than the act was the result: a paltry $1000 fine to the property owners and $2000 for the company that did the work. (See the San Juan Journal article here.) For someone who just won a nine figure lottery jackpot, that's chump change.
This week, Mar Vista has resurfaced in the news again, this time because the owners have applied for a permit to build a 271' dock capable of mooring up to six 30' vessels in a pocket beach adjacent to both their property and the University of Washington Reserve that makes up the majority of False Bay. I don't like the idea myself, and have submitted comments to the county expressing why (you can do the same between now and June 4 - e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org). But as this issue is being discussed on the island, some people are asking: who cares? It's just a dock. What's wrong with a dock?
It's true, it's just one dock, in the grand scheme of things. But here are a few additional salient facts:
- There aren't any other docks on the exposed west side of San Juan Island. In addition to this leaving the shoreline visually appealing and largely undeveloped, there's a good reason for this: this side of the island gets hit pretty hard by winter storms. How long would a dock last? And if this one gets approved, how many others will try to follow suit?
- There's ample moorage available at other local marinas. This site is what just a couple years ago was proposed as a no-go zone for vessels during the summer months due to it being such critical foraging habitat for the Southern Residents. And think of how far they'll have to go just to fuel up.
- People have claimed, rightly so, that the owners are following the appropriate protocol for building a dock, so what's the problem? They were also following appropriate protocol for developing their property until they showed blatant disregard for the rules and clearcut part of it, so I'm not really sold on their environmental integrity.
- Pocket beaches are a critical shoreline habitat for many species. I know this cove, and in my brief visits have seen it used by river otters, harlequin ducks, harbor seals, bald eagles, and black oystercatchers, just to name a few species - and that's only what I can see above the surface. According to recent studies conducted on forage fish in the county, pocket beaches are one of the prime habitats locally in which juvenile Chinook salmon hang out during the summer months. (Read my May 9 blog post for an idea of just how important those guys are.) It's also close to a confirmed sand lance spawning site and is certainly providing important habitat to other fish and intertidal species as well.
- Amazingly (to me) the county has decided at this point that no environmental impact assessment for this permit is necessary. I think in the very least it deserves that.
- Shoreline development is a major issue in Washington State right now. Puget Sound and the Salish Sea are beautiful places, but not healthy ones. Habitat preservation and restoration are absolutely critical if we're going to protect any species, or give ourselves a healthy place to live. There are some amazing restoration efforts going on in Washington, but due to new and continuing development projects, the net result is we are still losing habitat. Yes, this is just one site. But they all add up.
- Shoreline development is also a major issue in San Juan County right now. There is a major divide locally between those that want to preserve the rights of property owners and those that want to preserve the environment. San Juan County has recently undergone a mandatory process to update its Critical Areas Ordinance, which dictates how development activities intersect with environmental regulations. The new ordinance was appealed by both sides: FRIENDS of the San Juans, a local conservation organization, claims the regulations aren't adequate based on current science to protect habitat. The Common Sense Alliance, a grassroots organization that claims they stand for "the complete disregard" of property owners, believes the ordinance is mandating harsh solutions to undefined problems that have no scientific basis. The two sides have clashed in sometimes ugly debates in the local media, but it truly seems that our islands are at a crossroads. Which path will we take? Will we put the land before ourselves, aiming towards a more sustainable environmental future, or will we maintain the status quo, where you can do whatever you want on your own land, especially if you have the money to back it up?
So, regardless of your opinion on the issue, I hope you can see by now....this about a lot more than just one dock.