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King County executive proposes builders pay a fee instead of mitigating for their projects

King County Executive Dow Constantine is giving builders the option to pay a fee, instead of completing mitigation to respond to the harm their projects do to the environment.    - Charles Cortes/Auburn Reporter
King County Executive Dow Constantine is giving builders the option to pay a fee, instead of completing mitigation to respond to the harm their projects do to the environment.
— image credit: Charles Cortes/Auburn Reporter

Dow Constantine wants to give builders the option of paying a fee instead of completing individual mitigation projects to answer for the harm their projects do to streams and wetlands.

The King County Executive recently proposed this market-based approach to the King County Council.

"With this proposal, we couple greater predictability for builders to greater certainty that we will successfully protect and restore streams and wetlands. This approach affirms King County's commitment to innovation and collaboration with regulatory agencies, the environmental community and the development community," Constantine said.

Right now, the law directs builders to avoid or minimize as much as possible their effects on wetlands and other aquatic-sensitive areas – or in those cases where they can't, create new wetlands elsewhere.

Under the proposed legislation, builders could choose to buy "mitigation credits" to meet their obligations for wetland mitigation. The County would then use those payments to design, build and maintain successful, long-lasting ecological restoration projects that meet the needs of the watershed and the environment.

Constantine said the County could use this tool to establish a framework through which the private sector could drive environmental protection through voluntary transactions.

"By pooling mitigation payments, King County can build larger restoration projects with greater benefits to the environmental health of Puget Sound's watersheds," said Constantine. "And lands where projects occur will be permanently protected as open space, ensuring a legacy of a healthy environment for future generations."

If enacted into law, the proposed legislation would be the first of its kind in the state.

Some in the building community say this approach would speed up one time-eating part of the permit process.

"The County is proposing to provide people with additional mitigation options; this is not a new regulatory authority," said Sam Anderson, Executive Director of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. "This new mitigation tool would shift some of the burden of navigating the regulatory process off the private sector and onto King County government. This should streamline the permitting process for builders and facilitate homebuilding in King County in ways that respect the natural environment."

Environmental organizations recognize the benefits of the proposed program, too — but they have their own reasons for doing so.

"While the first preference is for projects to do no harm and then to mitigate on-site, we are pleased that King County has proposed this innovative and forward-thinking plan which will address losses of stormwater infiltration," said Tom Bancroft, Executive Director of People For Puget Sound. "It is important that we maximize water infiltration in replacement projects, as well as create excellent habitat."

The proposed program would be among the first nationwide to operate in compliance with 2008 federal rules directing where and how "in-lieu fee mitigation" occurs, Constantine's office said it is also consistent with state rules.

Under the proposed program, the Washington State Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would co-chair a regulatory oversight committee to ensure the County meets its obligations under the program."In-lieu fees make the solution ready ahead of the need," said Ted Sturdevant, Director of the state Department of Ecology. "When a particular project cannot avoid damage to wetlands, a mitigation project will be available, and in many cases already under way, pre-designed to maximize the environmental benefits for that watershed. That's a win for all concerned, and we're pleased to approve this program."

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