Could boosting tourism hurt Port Gamble Bay?

PORT GAMBLE — After a mistake in Kitsap County’s rural zoning code was pointed out about six months ago, two influential groups in Port Gamble squared off over the future of the bay.

Olympic Property Group found the rural tourism facilities category for Port Gamble and Suquamish had been altered — an X where a C should be — and asked the county to correct the mistake. The Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe, however, said it was not a minor mistake, but a chance to have a real discussion about what should and shouldn’t be allowed in Port Gamble Bay.

The change from C to X, which meant tour boats and seaplanes went from being permitted to prohibited, occurred when the county was reviewing the urban zoning codes in 2008. Somehow, two specific categories in Rural Historic land was changed.

For OPG, this meant their permit to build a large, floating dock in the north embayment of Port Gamble Bay — for tour boats and float planes to use — would be put on hold.

After numerous discussions between the county, OPG and Port Gamble S’Klallam, the planning commission set a meeting to hear testimony and render a recommendation to county commissioners. The commission voted 7-2 on Nov. 1 to return the C — permitted with conditions — to the rural zoning code.The change now goes to the County Commission, possibly in January.

The rural tourism facilities category that was changed is actually split in two: seaplanes and tour boats; and outfitter guides and guided tours. Facilities for outfitter guides and guided tours are currently allowed with conditional use permits, as would facilities for tour boats and seaplanes if county commissioners approve the change.

Scott Diener, manager of policy and planning in the Department of Community Development, said the county comprehensive plan and the zoning codes “frankly supports tourism and the redevelopment of the waterfront.”

“This was an important decision for the towns future,” Jon Rose, president of OPG, said in a statement. “Much of our tourism in North Kitsap stems from the charm of historic towns with vibrant waterfronts. This will keep the door open to letting the town recover from the loss of the mill and contribute to jobs, culture, and tax revenues.”

And while many other organizations are discussing tourism being the sustainable future for Port Gamble, the tribe’s issue is about the health of the bay, and the health of their tribe and culture.

Docks built for seaplanes and tour boats could qualify as a marina, according to Port Gamble S’Klallam Chairman Jeromy Sullivan. A marina designation can trigger closure zones by the Department of Health for shellfish harvesting. Sullivan cited Port Ludlow’s closure as an example.

“It’s minimal in the beginning, but expansion [of closures] is how our bays and inlets get closed,” he said. The contamination and bacteria build-up of marina traffic is what causes shellfish closure zones.

Tribe spokeswoman Ginger Vaughan added large boat or float plane terminals can also impact herring spawning areas.

“To be clear, Port Gamble S’Klallam has never opposed a small dock to support sustainable activities, such as low-impact tourism, fishing guide services and kayak rentals,” Vaughan said. “Current zoning would support a dock of this size.”

Diener said the county did consult an engineer from the Department of Health to address the kinds of concerns Port Gamble S’Klallam brought up. However, there isn’t one entity that decides if a dock qualifies as a marina —  different agencies have different definitions of a marina.

However, he said this change wouldn’t mean these types of docks can definitely be built. Under a conditional use permit, a proposed terminal or dock would need to be compliant with several local codes, reviewed by the state, tribes and national interests, such as the National Marine Fisheries Service. An applicant may have his dock permit granted, but with so many conditions it may not be worthwhile to continue the project.

“We felt this process was more appropriate rather than to cut the [applicant] off at the knees,” Diener said.

Sullivan said the potential for closure is still a real threat.

“The tribe’s number one goal is to protect Port Gamble Bay,” he said. “It is truly our home, and we’re going to do what we can to clean the bay up and keep it safe.”

Vaughan said the tribe “has not decided whether they will pursue any further action on this matter.”

Rose, however, said OPG has been preparing a master plan for redevelopment of the town in 2012. “This decision will help keep our thinking on track,” he said.


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