Critical Areas Ordinance in the San Juan Islands

I’ve been working with clients building on the San Juan Islands for over seven years. For the past few years, there has been concern about the Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) and how it will affect their properties, especially those living along the shoreline, but nothing was set in stone. We are currently in the 60-day appeals period, which began December 12th. The new rules are set to go into effect March 1, 2013.


Critical Areas are:

1. Geologically hazardous areas.

2. Frequently flooded areas.

3. Critical aquifer recharge areas.

4. Wetlands.

5. Fish and wildlife habitat areas.

Realistically, what will this mean for you if you own property?

  • Your setbacks may be increased if your property along the shoreline (projects vested after March 1 may have to be further away from the water than they could be previously). You or your representative/architect will need to review the “San Juan County Designated Shoreline Environments Map” at the county office, as much of the environmental information is not available in the online maps.
  • Building on your property may be limited by new wetland restrictions. See this map to determine if there is a wetland on your property. Please note that this is not the final draft.
  • I will probably be recommending a Residential Pre-Application (RPA) for most projects. In the past we’ve used these to determine shoreline setbacks (since the amount allowed was dependent on factors such as adequate screening from trees that must be determined on a case by case basis).
  • If you are in the market to purchase property with the intent of building, I would strongly recommend a feasibility study to determine critical areas near or on a site. This is not meant to discourage anyone from buying land, but to encourage prospective buyers to go in with your eyes open about the building potential of a lot.
  • Keep in mind, these rules apply to new structures only, but could apply to future projects accessory to your existing primary residence (landscaping, sheds, guest houses).

Documents, maps and current information from San Juan County

Council Approves Final CAO updates

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