Planning and Development Services
Director: Dale Pernula
CRITICAL AREAS ORDINANCE (CA0) FAQ
Critical areas are wetlands, aquifer recharge areas, frequently flooded areas, geologically hazardous areas, and fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas. The County is required to regulate development in these areas because of the hazard they may represent to public health or because of their natural functions and public value. The first CAO was adopted on May 13, 1996 and became effective on June 13, 1996.
The County doesn’t expect applicants to be aware of all the critical areas that may be around their project. Some critical areas have been mapped but most remain unidentified. In order to identify unmapped critical areas, the County requires a critical areas review to be completed with new development proposals on a site by site basis.
In order to determine if there are critical areas on your property, you may submit an application for review at any time. However, critical areas review is required for all new development proposals unless it has been previously completed with a prior project. Department staff can determine if any review has been done.
The CAO regulations may apply if the project area (that portion of the property to be developed not the entire property) is in or near a critical area. The County will review the critical areas checklist for indicators of critical areas usually within about 300 feet of the proposed development. The 300-foot measurement is not necessarily a development restriction; it is there to set a uniform standard for review purposes.
Yes, provided the proposed development can avoid critical areas and associated buffers or if the impacts to the critical areas can be adequately mitigated. In some cases, a variance may be required (see 14.24.140 and 14.10).
If the development is not specifically allowed without standard review under SCC 14.24.070 then the proposal must be reviewed for compliance with the CAO. For example, single family building permits (including additions that expand the foot print, detached buildings, etc.), fill and grade permits, land divisions, special use permits, shoreline permits, commercial developments, conversion forest practices and conversion option harvest plans, and septic permits are regulated under the CAO. Even if there is no permit requirement, any proposed alteration of a critical area is subject to CAO review (14.24.060).
If the County does not require a permit for my development, but it would take place in a critical area or its buffer, does my activity require CAO review?
In cases where no County permit is required and the proposed activity is not specifically allowed without standard review (14.24.070), the activity must comply with the CAO. Activities such as site investigations surveys, and subsurface explorations do not require CAO review. In these cases; however, the activities must minimize the critical area impacts and the disturbed areas must be immediately restored.
The Activities Allowed Without Standard Review section of the CAO (14.24.070) provides a description of activities that are allowed to proceed without standard critical areas review. All these activities must comply with other County codes and must be carried out in ways that cause the least impact to critical areas and their buffers. Any adverse impact to a critical area or associated buffer resulting from the activity shall be restored to the maximum extent possible.
The critical areas checklist is part of the critical areas review application and evaluates site characteristic for the presence of critical areas indicators (site characteristics include vegetation, water courses, unstable slopes and soil types). The checklist consists of two parts: the first part is a one page list of site indicator questions filled out by the applicant; the second part is completed by staff and includes a checklist of map references on critical areas.
If standard review of a proposed activity is required, a site visit will take place. County staff will evaluate the area within 300 feet of the proposed development activity for the presence of critical areas indicators. If the site visit confirms critical area indicators are present, the applicant will be notified that a critical areas site assessment is required to proceed with critical areas review of the proposal. However, other options may be available under the CAO for proceeding with the permit application.
Site assessments are reports prepared by a qualified professional that identify the location and extent of critical areas on and near the project site. The report will also classify the critical areas and determine appropriate protection standards (typically buffers). If the proposed project can’t avoid impacts to the critical areas, a mitigation plan will also be included. The assessment will also include a site plan that can be used as a Protected Critical Area (PCA) site plan. SCC 14.24.090(1) requires all critical areas that are identified by the assessment be designated as a PCA and recorded as a title notice.
If I am not planning to build within a critical area or its buffer, do I need to have a mitigation plan prepared?
No. The CAO does not require a mitigation plan if the project area is located outside critical areas and associated buffers. This means once the critical areas have been identified and classified, and their standard buffers established, no additional mitigation is required. The exception to this would be if part of the development activity had unique circumstances (e.g. highly sensitive habitat) associated with the critical area that required additional protection. If this were the case, it would be up to the County not the landowner to demonstrate why additional mitigation is required.
Even if no mitigation is required, the PCA site plan will need to be recorded (14.24.090(1)).
The County has put together a list of companies that have sent the County a statement of qualifications. This list is for informational purposes only and is not a list of County approved critical area professionals. Another good place to start looking would be the yellow pages of the phone book under headings such as engineering, surveying, environmental, and geologists. Each type of critical area assessment requires certain professional qualifications. These qualifications are specified in SCC 14.04, Definitions.
Critical areas review is one of many things that need to be completed prior to applying for a building permit. Since the CAO review will be done before submittal, it shouldn’t change the timeline of the building permit review unless the proposal is not consistent with the previous CAO approval.
I have a pre-existing lot that was platted before the CAO became effective (June 13, 1996). Do I have to go through a critical areas review?
Yes. All proposed building and construction activity on pre-existing lots must submit for CAO review. Lots created after the CAO should have gone through critical area review and would not require additional review unless the project is for an activity or location that was not originally approved during the platting process.
PCAs must be identified on a scaled site plan showing the location of the critical area and associated buffers, structures (existing and proposed) and their distances from the PCA and lot lines to show relative location within the subject parcel. Once the PCA site plan is approved by staff and the cover sheet has been signed by the owner, it will be recorded with the Auditor. The applicant may prepare the site plan and all distances and locations of structures may be measured from the established PCA boundary to within plus or minus 5 feet – a survey is not required. See 14.24.090.
Low-flow or closed streams are also called Surface Water Source Limited streams. They are flow sensitive streams in Skagit County designated by the Washington State Department of Ecology as requiring minimum water flows for the purposes of protecting fish, game, birds or other wildlife resources or recreational or aesthetic values of said public waters pursuant to RCW 90.22. See 14.24.300.
Geologically hazardous areas include areas susceptible to the effects of erosion, sliding, earthquake, or other geologic events. They pose a threat to the health and safety of citizens where incompatible residential, commercial, industrial or infrastructure development is sited in areas of a hazard.