SOUTH BEND - With the extension to June 30 of a moratorium on building in the Seaview dunes, dune preservation has passed one more hurdle. But there are plenty more looming on the horizon.

On Feb. 22, Pacific County commissioners heard arguments on extending the moratorium.

County administrative officer and Ad Hoc Technical Committee member Bryan Harrison said the committee was formed to find a way to preserve the dunes, keep property owners fiscally whole, and end the longstanding conflict.

At issue is a roughly rectangular piece of land between Long Beach and Ilwaco. A ground swelling of community members oppose building in the dunes there, and would like the area preserved. Currently, the zoning codes allow one house per five acres between the building setback line- the furthest point west beyond which no buildings are allowed - and the urban growth boundary to the east, where higher density building is permitted.

The committee proposes to move the building setback line east so it corresponds with the urban growth boundary. In return, higher density building would be allowed in the section just east of the boundary.

"It's a challenge," Harrison said. "It will require some flexibility in our zoning and our streets." He said the largest hurdle will be obtaining Army Corps of Engineers agreement to form a wetland bank so property owners can mitigate wetland fill east of the urban growth boundary. "That's probably the biggest challenge, working with the Corps," he said. "[The plan] is defensible from an environmental standpoint."

Despite the uncertainties, Harrison told the commissioners much has been accomplished, and he urged them to allow the process to continue by extending the moratorium and by passing the proposal on to the planning commission for review, which it will begin to do Thursday, March 2.

"The request to you is to extend that moratorium until June," he said.

The meeting was then opened to public comment. Person after person in the filled room stood and urged the extension. Each complimented the Ad Hoc Committee's work and the commissioners' attention.

There was one sole dissenting voice. Alexander Mackie, a lawyer representing property owners Sonas Capital Group and Pacific Crest Development III, which plan a development in the dunes, asked the commissioners not to extend the moratorium.

"I think it's time to take a pause and let the moratorium lapse," he said. One of his objections was the uncertainty of establishing a mitigation bank. "Nobody has figured out how to permit a mitigation bank," he said, referring to it as a "pipe dream," without a funding source.

He was also concerned property owners will not be sufficiently compensated for loss of potential building sites. "The property gain you get is illusionary," Mackie said.

But the majority clearly supported the proposal and the moratorium.

"What's been accomplished in a very short time is amazing," said Mike Green. "It deserves an opportunity to continue."

"We really like what the technical committee has come up with," said Nan Malin. "This is what the community wants."

"Mr. Mackie is an eloquent man," David Campiche acknowledged. "He's paid to be eloquent. But he's representing a newcomer," he said, referring to the developers. "You don't want to put anything more on those dunes, they're just going to be washed away eventually anyway."

Charles Johnston echoed that sentiment. "We've had significant erosion," he said. He also mentioned the threat of global warming and the potential for sea level rise. "Within 20 years, we would have a 50-50 chance that houses built out there will be in jeopardy."

Commissioner Jon Kaino took the lead in asking questions. He was concerned that options would be limited by leaving the urban growth boundary at its present location. Moving the boundary, potentially allowing greater building density further west, was considered earlier in the process and strongly opposed by the community at public hearings. Changing the boundary would also trigger a county-wide review of the comprehensive plan, the document which guides development, which would be a lengthy and difficult process.

The suggestion to move the boundary once again prompted opposition. But, Kaino pointed out with a smile, the line change might not be westward, but potentially eastward.

"To Naselle?" an audience member asked, prompting laughter and dissipating some of the tension in the room.

Kaino also asked, "Would the landowners be able to cover mitigation costs?"

"They do now," was Harrison's response.

Georgene Swenson summed up the mood of the audience, "Consider the result if you don't extend the moratorium," she said. "Because it means development right now. It's crunch time. The developers are here so it's decision time for you commissioners. Do you want to go down in history as the commissioners who saved the dunes or ruined them?"

Commissioner Bud Cuffel motioned to extend the moratorium, adding "We need to come to some resolution on this."

Commissioner Pat Hamilton seconded the motion, and it was unanimously passed.

A workshop with the planning commission will be held to review the proposal on March 2, at 6 p.m. at the county commissioner's meeting room, 1216 Bush Drive in South Bend.

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