San Juan County’s Comprehensive Plan — Why It Matters, and What You Can Do

The Comp Plan Action Team

If you’ve come to this web page looking for information on how to join Friends’ Comp Plan Action Team, please email Executive Director Brent Lyles. The Action Team meets the second Friday of every month, 8:30-10:00 a.m., via Zoom. 

Background

For many decades, working on behalf of and with our members, Friends of the San Juans has been diligently engaging in updates to San Juan County’s official Comprehensive Plan. Known as the “Comp Plan,” it guides how our community will look in the future. The County’s Comp Plan sets goals and priorities that guide the County’s growth, including what can be built and where; which forests, agricultural lands, and shorelines will be protected against development; how the County responds to tourism and the climate crisis; and much, much more. 

With its new Comp Plan update, the County is making decisions now that will guide its actions for the next 20 years; the stakes literally could not be higher for the future of our Islands.

If you’ve ever marveled at the open vistas or the quality of life in the San Juan Islands, you have appreciated the benefits of San Juan County’s Comp Plan. In 1979, in the face of increasing tourism and rapid development, a group of concerned citizens came together and created a new organization — Friends of the San Juans — that would encourage sensible, quality-of-life-focused management of the County’s natural resources and growth. Friends was created to support San Juan County’s first Comp Plan, and since that time, we have been actively involved with each ensuing Comp Plan update. Today, we’re engaged again, and in the coming months, we hope you’ll join us!

Over the last several years, the County has been moving methodically through each of the Plan’s sections: Vision, Governance, Land Use & Rural, Shoreline Master Program, Water Resources, Housing, Transportation, Capital Facilities, Utilities, Historic and Archeological Preservation, and Economic Development. In 2017 and 2018, the County held public workshops to develop a “Vision Statement” to identify community priorities for the Comp Plan update. These included things like ensuring affordable housing, mitigating the effects of climate change, and protecting our natural resources and rural character. Since then, the sausage has been getting made. The County staff and the Planning Commission (which is made up of heroic community volunteers) have been revising and updating each section of the previous Comp Plan to reflect new priorities, recent scientific data, and the current realities of our community and our world.

Here at Friends of the San Juans, drawing on our years of experience and bringing the best available science to bear, we are taking advantage of opportunities for public comment by submitting formal recommendations to the San Juan County Council and Planning Commission. In just the last few months, we’ve submitted detailed comments on managing forests for climate resiliency, the proliferation of vacation rentals, incentivizing regenerative agriculture, whether new gravel mining operations should be allowed in the Islands, how to support and sustain our local farmers, and the critical importance of limiting sprawl in our rural areas. We’ve also created helpful info sheets about Agricultural Resource Lands and Forest Resource Lands.

But we can’t do it without you! Over the course of Summer and Fall 2021, you’ll hear more and more from us, inviting you to get personally engaged in the County’s Comp Plan process. By submitting letters or speaking up at Planning Commission meetings or sharing information on social media, you can advocate for policies that protect everything we all love about the San Juan Islands.

Ready to get started? Here are three things you can do:

  1. Learn more: This web page has all of the proposed sections of the Comp Plan update in one place. Currently, these are drafts because the County’s wheels are still turning; in fact, the County will soon launch a process for seeking public feedback on the whole thing. Pick a section that interests you, and read through it. Do you agree with the assumptions that the County is making? Do the proposed policies make sense? Is anything missing?
  2. Write a letter: Right now, the Planning Commission is looking at how the climate crisis is addressed in the Comp Plan. We had some thoughts about the value of forests and agricultural lands in improving our County’s climate resiliency, so we wrote this letter to them about it. You can see a list of all the letters that the public has submitted on this web page. To find the most recent ones, click on the grey box called “Land Use & Rural” and then scroll down to the “Public Comments” section. (Wherever you see “FOSJ” that’s us.) Submit your letter by emailing it to [email protected], and keep in mind that your letter can be as simple as, “I strongly support the points made by Friends of the San Juans in their memo about climate and natural resource lands, dated January 26th…”
  3. Sign up to help: Over the Summer and Fall of 2021, there will be a lot of opportunities to speak up and support sensible, science-based policies that protect our natural landscapes and the fabric and character of our community.

We’ve created a small action group of passionate people whom we can count on to write important letters, attend critical meetings, and share relevant information on social media. If you’d like to receive those calls to action, send an email to Executive Director Brent Lyles and let him know to sign you up — thanks for taking action!

How to be effective: 

The Comp Plan process is a bear, and our goal is to help you engage in a way that’s meaningful and productive, and also not overwhelming and intimidating. To be clear and transparent, we are hopeful that you’ll share some of Friends’ concerns, and that you’ll weigh in on those, but that is up to you — even if you don’t agree with us, your voice still needs to be heard! If you do weigh in, it is most powerful when you weigh in on things that you care about, and if those are issues that Friends is talking about too, then all the better. But please engage in this process either way, because a public process like this needs the public!

There are essentially three ways to make your voice heard:

  1. Write a letter to the SJC Council and Planning Commission via email, at [email protected]
  2. Show up at Planning Commission meetings and speak during public access time. Planning Commission meetings are the third Friday of every month at 8:30 am, online via Microsoft Teams.
  3. Show up at SJC Council meetings and speak during public access time. Council meetings are held on most Mondays and Tuesdays.

Tips for writing a letter:

  1. Keep it simple. The Planning Commission members have to read a TON of material for every meeting (sometimes including lengthy, legalese-sounding letters from us), so if you get to the point quickly and state it clearly, you are more likely to be effective.
  2. Submit the letter at least one week before the next scheduled meeting. That way, County staff have time to send it out to the Planning Commission and give them plenty of time to read it.
  3. If you are basing your letter heavily on a news article or a scientific study, feel free to append that article or study at the end of your letter’s PDF (in addition to providing a link), so that the Planning Commissioners do not have to go searching for it.
  4. In your email, ask for confirmation that your letter has been received. If you don’t get it, follow up with County staff.

Tips for speaking in person:

  1. Don’t ramble on or lecture the Planning Commission about climate change or whatever; they actually already know a lot about climate change, for instance. Keep your comments simple and to the point. Be sure to include why you care — that’s really helpful — but don’t go on and on about it.
  2. You have three minutes. We usually practice our comments ahead of time, to make sure they flow well and also to time them.
  3. Despite how things sometimes play out, just recently we had a former County Council member tell us how annoying it is when 20 (or 200) people show up and all say the same thing. (He said it’s better to get those 200 people to all sign a letter.) That being said, we do think there’s some power in a visible groundswell of support for something. So perhaps the jury’s still out on that, but we’re hereby passing along that guy’s advice to you.

Tips for BOTH writing letters and speaking in person:

  1. Comment on things that the Planning Commission is currently working on and discussing. This is a big one, but it’s also challenging for citizens to know what the Planning Commission is talking about on a particular week. That’s one way that Friends can help — just ask us what’s coming up. Another tool is looking at the Planning Commission’s agenda for the coming week, which is posted here, two weeks in advance.
  2. Remember that the County Council, not the Planning Commission and not County staff, makes the rules and the decisions. You might really want the Planning Commission to reopen the Vision Statement for the Comp Plan, for instance, but once the Planning Commission has asked the Council whether they should and the Council tells them no, then the Planning Commission’s hands are pretty much tied.
  3. Be respectful, always. Remember that the Planning Commission and the County staff are all good people, trying to do their jobs the best they can. And heck, the Planning Commission members are volunteers!

Current Friends talking points, focused on the current and recent discussions at Planning Commission meetings:

  1. Our County’s citizens care about protecting natural landscapes and the rural character of the Islands, and we know that our County’s natural landscapes have climate benefits, so we want the County to designate more land parcels as Natural Resource Lands. Natural Resource Lands come in two flavors, Agricultural and Forest, and they have restrictions on what can be done on them, so this also helps protect the Islands from getting overdeveloped. For more information, we’ve see our info sheets about Agricultural Resource Lands and Forest Resource Lands.
  2. State law (specifically the Growth Management Act, or GMA) requires the County to consider how much Natural Resource land is needed in our County to support local agriculture and forestry industries. Therefore, we are encouraging the County to try to figure that out (which isn’t easy, admittedly). In the meantime, since no one knows if the County currently has enough Natural Resource Lands to support these industries, whenever possible the County should error on the side of protecting these current Natural Resource land parcels from getting de-designated into a different zoning designation that would allow for more development and subdividing (making them unsuitable for farming or forestry). The Planning Commission recently decided to recommend de-designating 127 acres of Forest Resource Lands, which opens those forested acres up to development — Friends strongly opposes removing these protections from these forested areas.
  3. The Planning Commissioners have repeatedly stated their desire for strong climate language to be included in the Comp Plan Update. Following that lead, we’d like for climate benefits like carbon sequestration and aquifer recharge to be included as criteria when assessing whether a parcel qualifies as Natural Resource Land. The GMA does not require this, but it does allow the County the option of including this.
Katie FlemingSan Juan County’s Comprehensive Plan — Why It Matters, and What You Can Do