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J.E. “Sam” Ryan, CBO

5280 Northwest Drive
Bellingham, Washington 98226
Telephone: (360) 676-6907

Regulations: Standards Critical Areas Logo

Where does the CAO apply?

The provisions of the Whatcom County Critical Areas Ordinance apply to any proposed land use or development activity within an area of Whatcom County that meets the definitions and criteria for critical areas as established in the CAO (Whatcom County Code click on Chapter 16.16).

Administrative Principles

· Reasonable Use Provisions – Allows all property owners to have reasonable economic use of their property when constrained by critical areas. Reasonable use exceptions associated with all single-family residential applications, except for those within geologically hazardous areas, are processed as an Administrative review.

· Predictability and Consistency – The CAO provides clear requirements for permit applicants, county staff and consultants. It is also integrated with other regulations to reduce conflicts.

Critical Areas Buffers

Buffers are vegetated lands adjacent to critical areas that are intended to protect the critical areas from activities occurring beyond the buffer. Land use regulations have required buffers around wetlands and streams for a number of years and buffers have been the subject of many scientific studies and reviews. Buffers serve different functions depending on the type of critical area they are intended to protect.

Buffer Modification - In some instances buffers prescribed by the regulations cannot be met on a particular site. When this occurs there are a series of options available to landowners to comply with the regulations, such as:

•           Buffer Enhancement
•           Buffer Averaging
•           Conservation Easements

Photo of book of wetlands standardsWetlands – Wetland quality will be based on a rating system that is easy to review and ensures all wetlands are evaluated using the same criteria. It also improves consistency with state regulations.  Wetland categories are assigned based on the Western Washington Wetland Rating System PDF

  • Category I wetlands are of exceptional value in terms of protecting water quality, storing flood and storm water, and/or providing habitat for. These are wetland communities of infrequent occurrence that often provide documented habitat for sensitive, threatened or endangered species, and/or have other attributes that are very difficult or impossible to replace if altered. (Buffer 50-300 feet)
  • Category II wetlands have significant value based on their function. They do not meet the criteria for Category I rating but occur infrequently and have qualities that are difficult to replace if altered.  (Buffer 50-275 feet)
  • Category III wetlands have important resource value. They occur commonly in Whatcom County.  (Buffer 50-150 feet)
  • Category IV wetlands are of limited resource value. They typically have vegetation of similar age and class, lack of special habitat features, and/or are isolated or disconnected from other aquatic systems or high quality upland habitats.  (Buffer 25-50 feet)

Standard buffer width is based on the following factors:
Wetland category: category I wetlands have the largest buffers.
Habitat function score: high quality habitat is valuable and protected with a larger buffer.
Land use intensity: wetlands adjacent to high intensity land use require larger buffers for protection.

  • Stream Buffers – Larger buffers for large streams and rivers with fish habitat (150-feet).  Buffers for medium sized fish-bearing streams are smaller (100-feet).  Still smaller buffers for non-fish bearing streams (50-feet). Buffers for rivers and streams with channel migration zones
  • Photo of BirdWildlife Habitats – Specifies how development is regulated within sensitive wildlife habitats including allowed encroachments, prohibitions, and when wildlife studies are required.  Wildlife and habitat buffers vary by species and type.
  • Geologically Hazardous Areas – Restricts development in alluvial fan hazard areas. Protections now include tsunamis, volcanic hazards, and erosion hazards.  Buffers associated with geologically hazardous areas are primarily designed to protect property and human life from hazards associated with certain unstable geological conditions. Buffers adjacent to steep slopes can increase stability and ensure that people and structures are protected in the event of a landslide.

Additional Standards

  • Wetland Mitigation Banking – Provides flexibility for property owners by including a process to allow compensation for critical area impacts within mitigation banks in Whatcom County. Includes a public review process and special requirements if banking is proposed on agricultural lands.
  • Channel Migration Zones – Prohibits development of new permanent structures within channel migration zones (the area where the watercourse migrates). Regulations will not be applied until channel migration zones (CMZs) have been formally identified and no CMZs have been identified at this time.
  • Chuckanut Corridor – Identifies a wildlife corridor extending from the marine waters to the National Forest boundary east of Chuckanut Mountain. This corridor is the last remaining area in the Puget Trough where the natural land cover of the Cascades extends to the marine shoreline.
  • Improved Farm Plans – Continues farm plan (CPAL) provisions to limit the economic impact of the CAO on agricultural activities in Whatcom County while providing equal protection of critical areas. Provides clear direction and clarifies roles and responsibilities between applicants, the Whatcom Conservation District, consultants and County staff. Allows better oversight and adaptive management of the farm plan program.
  • Watershed Based Management Plans – Allows landowners in designated watersheds to develop their own comprehensive resource management plans as an alternative method of achieving environmental objectives (e.g. The Bertrand Creek Comprehensive Irrigation District Management Plan).

Other Agencies that have jurisdictional control over critical areas may include: the Lummi Indian Nation; the Nooksack Tribe; the United States Army Corps of Engineers, Environmental Protection Agency, and Fish and Wildlife Service; the Washington State Department of Ecology, Department of Fish and Wildlife and Department of Natural Resources.