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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The Importance of a Feasibility Study

When purchasing property to develop or build on, it’s important to know the legal parameters of the property. This also applies to adding on to an existing structure. Some of these are not readily available without a deeper look into the city or county code. This is also known as a code or zoning review. I regularly provide these services at the beginning of each project. Some things to look for when considering a property:
  • Setback Lines: how far back from the property line can you build on the front, rear and sides?
  • Are there limits on impervious surface? What controls are required for the amount of impervious surface you would like to add?
  • Height limits: how high can you build, and how is the height determined? Are there any incentives that allow for extra height (for example, a steeper roof pitch)?
  • Is your property located in any overlay zones that may affect your development, like a Historic zone?
  • Are you in a zone that will require more extensive review or more restrictive setbacks, such as an environmentally critical zone or shoreline? Is there a wetland on your property, or a bald eagle’s nest nearby?
  • Can you include a guest house or accessory dwelling unit (ADU) on your property? With the call for greater density and more options for smaller and affordable housing, cities are continually updating their codes to keep pace with the public sentiment. An ADU or guest area can provide flexibility and income generation through rental, if the jurisdiction allows.
  • Are there restrictions on the size or style of building? For example, some home owners associations require minimum areas (to maintain values in a neighborhood), certain materials, or layout restrictions (such as whether or not the garage door can face the street).
Don’t make assumptions about what you can do on a property based on what you see on neighboring properties. Zoning restrictions change over time and new development may be subject to more restrictive regulations than existing development, even though they are in the same zone or even next door to each other. Considering these factors along with considering the price and location of a property will eliminate unwelcome surprises down the line.