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History and Purpose of the Shoreline Master Act

By Krag Unsoeld

Shoreline protection became a big issue in Washington during the 1960s and early 1970s. Padilla Bay was being eyed for a "Venice-like" residential development, the Nisqually Delta was going to host a major log export terminal, and a portion of the Lake Chelan waterfront was filled to build a trailer park.

In 1970 Washington citizens rallied together to collect in ten weeks over 160,000 signatures on the Shoreline Protection Act, an initiative to the legislature demanding that they take action to protect Washington's shorelines. According to the Department of Ecology's (DOE) website, Washington has over 28,000 miles of coastline, including the Pacific Ocean, Puget Sound, the Straits of Juan de Fuca, Hood Canal, and rivers, lakes and streams above a certain size. This exceeds the distance around the entire Earth.

In 1971, the state legislature responded by adopting its own version of shoreline protection, the Shore Management Act (SMA). In a state-wide referendum on the matter voters chose if they wanted to protect their shorelines and which measure they would prefer. The legislative version prevailed.

The general goals of the shoreline master act are to:

  • Protect shoreline natural resources.
  • Promote public access.
  • Encourage water-dependent uses. -}

    Water-dependent Uses
    What exactly is a water-dependent use? According to the SMA guidelines (Washington Administrative Code 173-26-020) water-dependent means "a use or portion of a use which cannot exist in a location that is not adjacent to the water and which is dependent on the water by reason of the intrinsic nature of its operations." This includes port facilities, shoreline recreational uses, and water-dependent businesses such as fish canneries, ferry boat operations, marinas, and boat yards.

    Water-dependent uses do not include hotels and restaurants. In fact, these might conflict with the public access purpose of the SMA. This raises a very interesting question regarding the fate of the site that has housed the Oyster House. This site once was an oyster shucking warehouse. That is water-dependent. A case could easily be made that the restaurant does not fit this definition.

    Shoreline Planning and Sea Level Rise
    Olympia mayor Stephen Buxbaum has made the case that the SMA and the process of revising Olympia's shoreline master plan is not the place to consider policies to address sea level rise as a consequence of global warming.

    In an appendix of Ecology's shoreline master plan handbook it states, "SMPs provide a direct opportunity.... to incorporate preparing for sea level rise into a broader planning framework.... In the absence of good planning, human reaction to sea level rise will likely be driven by our incremental responses to damaging storms and floods, not by our desire to reduce the long-term impacts of a gradually rising sea. SMPs cannot prevent climate change or alter the rate of global sea level rise, but they are essential tools in assuring the wise development of coastal areas and the protection of public resources as sea level increases."

    In other words, SMPs are a logical and appropriate place to address sea level rise.

    Krag Unsoeld is President of SPEECH and can be reached at kragu@juno.com.

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Updated 2015/01/07 21:14:22