The City of Ocean Shores has begun to slow down the processing of lot clearing permit applications as it grapples with a local building boom that has quickly outpaced the resources of its small planning and permitting department.
The topic received lengthy discussion and several public comments at the May 28 City Council meeting, after a lot on Mount Olympus Drive that fronts the Grand Canal became the most recent of “three waterfront lots (that) were skinned down to the water line recently by the same company even after receiving notice of their violation,” according to Mayor Crystal Dingler.
Later in the week, Dingler told the North Coast News that, with this specific company, the city “will be looking into a penalty that is serious but not enough to drive a company out of business. And the lot has to be replanted; that’s a long-term project. It’s something we’re going to have to look at and we’ll be working with the Department of Ecology to determine what that has to look like.”
Council member Eric Noble’s motion to add the topic to that meeting’s agenda was approved, and he opened the subject by noting that year to date permit applications for lot clearing, for January through April, have skyrocketed from 25 in 2017 to 110 this year. In all, there were 124 lot clearing permits approved in 2017 and 228 in 2018.
Noble noted that “enforcement is on the planning department, not code enforcement or the police. A planning department of one person is tasked with going out and inspecting all these lots.” He said some landowners and developers “are just taking advantage of the situation, going in and clear-cutting these lots knowing that nobody’s going to enforce it. A professional city planner could help us in a massive way.”
Dingler said she wants the council to look at funding a city planner position, and she thinks it is within the department’s current budget to add an additional position to help with permit processing and enforcement. The topic has been included as a discussion item on the council’s next agenda for its meeting on June 10.
Council candidate David Linn presented images of the lot on Mount Olympus that was cleared to water’s edge on May 23, and proposed that the city hire enough staff to oversee permitting, raise permit fees, which are currently $23.50, recruit citizen volunteers to report lot clearing activities in their neighborhoods, and “enforce the code with real penalties.”
Local real estate agent Thorn Ward said a minimum 1,000 square foot home size requirement in the city’s building code sometimes left little room for anything but structures on many lots. The city actually has minimums ranging from 650 square feet to 1,000.
Ward later emailed other real estate people expressing his concern that there might be a moratorium on clearing permits. Dingler used her response to his email to lay out what she is doing and what she wants to see happen:
“I am simply slowing down the process so that I can be assured that we are providing clear instructions and thoroughly reviewing each permit application. In March, 60 clearing permits were issued. I don’t believe that any one person with multiple other responsibilities as well, could have issued 60 such permits with each receiving a thorough evaluation and follow-through. I am not blaming staff, certainly, who are just trying to meet the public need.”
The mayor explained that all pending clearing permit applications are being reviewed. “Any that are ready to go out, will issue immediately. However, any that are deficient, will be held up until such deficiencies are remedied.”
Dingler continued, “Longer term, we will review our policy regarding violations,” noting the trio of recent lot clearings “down to the water line. We will provide a consistent published policy of penalties and follow those policies.”
She said the city would “likely raise the clearing permit fees to ensure that we are properly funded for reviewing the applications.”
She said an overall look at relevant codes will include the home footprint requirements and “any other viable suggestions that are made. We will then propose changes to the Council, if such changes are warranted.”
Dingler called these actions “a reasonable, measured approach that will have lasting results. This issue has been boiling for months and … we continue to have disturbing incidents of lots cleared and trees cut ignoring the site maps that have been submitted with the permit application. The site maps are a legal obligation and will be enforced as such.”
She suggested to Ward, “If you want to speed up the process … encourage those clearing the lots to provide us with well thought out applications and to then follow the code and their approved site maps.”
Caption: On May 23, this lot on Mount Olympus Dr. was cleared down to the water line. Less than a week later the City of Ocean Shores started slowing down approvals of lot clearing permit applications. (No photo credit)