The City of Bellingham is developing a mitigation program to benefit our community. The goals of the program are to improve the success rate of mitigation projects, reduce costs associated with mitigation, coordinate mitigation efforts, and streamline the mitigation process. The program will encompass all drainage basins in the City of Bellingham and Urban Growth Areas.
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What is Mitigation?
The term “mitigation” means to lessen the severity of an action. When a development project proposes impacts to wetlands, streams, and habitat areas; agencies require the project “mitigate” their impacts. Mitigation is done by avoiding, minimizing, and compensating for the impact.
Mitigating impacts is important because wetlands, streams, and habitat areas are central to wise land use. These resources are shared assets that benefit the community as a whole. They provide valuable functions for our community including flood control, ground water recharge, water quality improvements, erosion control, recreation, education, and habitat for commercially important species.
The desire and need to protect Bellingham’s ecological assets such as wetlands, streams, and habitat areas is reflected in numerous policies and regulations including Bellingham’s Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO), Shoreline Master Program (SMP), Comprehensive Plan, and the City Council 2009 Legacies and Strategic Commitments. These values are supported in federal and state laws including the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), the state Growth Management Act (GMA), the state Shoreline Management Act (SMA), the State Hydraulic Code (Hydraulic Code), state Water Pollution Control Act, and the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA).
What is a Mitigation Program?
A mitigation program is a program that coordinates and implements mitigation actions. The program coordinates actions by balancing watershed processes, land use practices, and community goals to create an overall mitigation plan. Typically, the program then implements the plan by combining many small wetland, stream, and/or buffer mitigation projects into a more beneficial, ecologically valuable site. The program can then sell “credits” to projects that need to compensate for their impacts.
Traditionally, a project with unavoidable wetland, stream, or habitat impacts is responsible for completing their own mitigation activities rather than enrolling in a program. Unfortunately, sometimes this approach to mitigation results in high costs, high rates of failure, and is not able to achieve the goal of wise land use. A mitigation program is an alternative approach that offers Bellingham the opportunity to improve success rates, increase efficiency, and coordinate efforts to better reflect community values. Federal and state agencies now prefer the use of mitigation programs.
How Do You Use a Mitigation Program?
As with traditional mitigation, a permit applicant must first demonstrate that they have avoided and minimized wetland and stream impacts to the maximum extent practicable according to a series of steps is called “mitigation sequencing.”
The steps are defined in the SEPA implementing rules both
Chapter 197-11-768 Washington Administrative Code (WAC) and City of Bellingham Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO),Bellingham Municipal Code (BMC)
- Avoiding the impact altogether by not taking a certain action or parts of an action
- Minimizing impacts by limiting the degree or magnitude of the action and its implementation, by using appropriate technology, or by taking affirmative steps to avoid or reduce impacts
- Rectifying the impact by repairing, rehabilitating, or restoring the affected environment
- Reducing or eliminating the impact over time by preservation and maintenance operations during the life of the action
- Compensating for the impact by replacing, enhancing, or providing substitute resources or environments
- Monitoring the impact and taking appropriate corrective measures
After completing steps 1 through 4, if a project still has unavoidable impacts they need to provide mitigation. If they are in an appropriate location (“service area”) and have impacts that are consistent with the program, they can potentially buy credits from the mitigation program to fulfill their mitigation obligations.
Once they have purchased the credits, their obligation is complete and they can move forward with what they do best…building their project! The program pools the funds and does what it does best…construct and manage wetland and stream projects that can provide significant benefits to the watershed.
How Are We Moving Forward?
The City contracted with Northwest Ecological Services to examine the program options available, research what worked well for other jurisdictions in Puget Sound and make a recommendation on which program would be the best fit for Bellingham.
The City of Bellingham has three options for developing a mitigation program:
- mitigation bank
- in-lieu fee program
- local-only program
Based on current City of Bellingham needs and constraints, an in-lieu fee (ILF) program appears be the best approach for the City. Although an ILF program would require a serious financial and strategic commitment on the part of City government and its citizens, the program has the potential to provide significant economic and ecological benefits with only moderate risk.
Implementing a successful ILF program is anticipated to take approximately five to seven years.
We are already moving forward with Step 1 "Preparation" by inventorying and prioritizing our natural resources through the Habitat Master Planning process. In the next year we hope to begin developing a draft program framework or “Prospectus.”
Regional and National Use
Mitigation programs, especially mitigation banks, have been widely used throughout the Midwestern and Eastern United States. Although mitigation programs are relatively new in Washington State, there are several examples of each in the Puget Sound region.
There are over 1,000 approved banks in the United States. As of fall 2012, the Washington State Department of Ecology lists 12 state/federally approved and four pending mitigation banks in Washington State. Only one bank is approved for use in Whatcom County: the Lummi Nation Wetland and Habitat Mitigation Bank. Two banks are approved for use in Skagit County: Nookachamps Wetland Mitigation Bank and the Skagit Environmental Bank.
In-Lieu Fee (ILF) Programs
There are less than 100 approved ILF programs in the United States. As of fall 2012, the US Army Corps of Engineers lists only one federally approved ILF program in Washington State, the King County Mitigation Credit Program, approved March 2012. As the first ILF program approved in Washington State under the
2008 Federal Rule, King County’s program is being used as a template for future programs. In addition to King County’s program, there are four pending in-lieu fee applications. Below are links to two regional examples.