Washington's Shoreline Management Act
Washington's Shoreline Management Act (SMA) recognizes the importance of protecting and preserving the ecological function of shorelines and natural resources but also recognizes the value of shorelines for human use. Therefore, under the SMA, local governments must develop Shoreline Master Plans to balance land use and preservation within 200 feet of the shore. The local Shoreline Master Plans must be consistent with statewide guidance and be updated regularly. The state's amended Shoreline Master Program Guidelines Rule, which was adopted in December 2003, requires Shoreline Master Plans to ensure "no net loss" of the shoreline's ecological function. The Shoreline Master Plans must also include a system for classifying the shoreline into six specific environmental designations (Natural, Rural Conservancy, Aquatic, High-Intensity, Urban Conservancy, and Shoreline Residential) and a map of the shoreline showing the boundaries for each designation. Environmental designations are based on the level and type of development present, the significance of shoreline resources in the area, the suitability of the area for development (e.g. Is it prone to erosion?), and whether or not it is located within a designated growth management area (an area where development is encouraged).
The type of environmental designation then dictates how much and what type of development and land use(s) are allowed, including what type of shoreline stabilization structures (if any) are allowed. For example, the statewide Shoreline Management Plan Guidance states that "natural" areas are relatively pristine stretches of shoreline with little shoreline modification or hardening. Some low-intensity, single-family residential development, agricultural and forestry activities using sustainable practices can be permitted. However, no structural shoreline stabilization or significant removal of riparian vegetation is allowed. "Rural conservancy" areas are slightly more developed than "natural" areas, however, new land uses should not substantially degrade the shoreline or its ecological function. Structural shoreline stabilization techniques are only allowed if there is a demonstrated need to protect existing development and "softer" stabilization approaches are not feasible.
Local governments use these state guidelines to develop more specific standards for shoreline development within their Shoreline Master Plans. For example, Bainbridge Island's 1996 Special Area Management Plan, which incorporates their shoreline plan, prohibits revetments and bulkheads in natural and aquatic conservancy areas. The Plan also stipulates that hardened shorelines are only permitted within the other designations after non-structural stabilization techniques are proven ineffective. In addition, for rural conservancy and shoreline residential areas, revetments and bulkheads are only allowed if another bulkhead exists within 100 feet of the proposed structure. If there are no existing bulkheads in the area, a new bulkhead is not permitted.