Westport wants fresh eyes on wetlands

City commissions study to characterize wetlands throughout Westport

Wetlands dot many parts of Westport, and the growing city wants a scientist to provide a deciding opinion on their current character, and how they came to be.

Earlier this year the Westport City Council approved $15,000 for that work — an independent scientific wetlands review to help the city “better plan for shoreline management actions in the future, ultimately outlining the wetland boundaries and wetland types within the city limits of Westport.”

The city is in talks with a PhD geomorphologist to do the work, but the candidate had not been confirmed as of a May 13 council meeting, said Mayor Ed Welter.

Welter brought the proposal to the council not long after taking office at the beginning of the year.

“My goal is to have a single document that defines the wetland boundaries and the wetland lines and the types of wetlands in the city of Westport,” Welter said in a phone interview. “So that when these complaints arise with developers or citizens or other groups, we can point to it and say the city of Westport has done a complete and thorough study of wetlands in the city, these are where the wetlands are, and this is how it ties into land use and land development and what can and can’t be done in these areas.”

Defined broadly, wetlands are areas where water covers the soil, whether year-round or seasonally, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The prolonged presence of water creates conditions that favor certain types of plants and animals.

Since wetlands often come up in permitting processes, Welter hopes the review will provide clarity and consistency for the city, rather than having to assess projects on a case-by-case basis. He said two contractors were recently tripped up by discrepancies over wetland types at planned housing development sites.

An accurate assessment of which undeveloped areas of the city include wetlands, and what kind, is essential as development increases and deals with a need for affordable housing, Welter said.

“I think it’s really important to get as total of a picture of the wetlands in the city of Westport as possible,” he said. “We all need homes. There’s a housing issue in Westport.”

Depending on the location of a proposed development, the new science could inform the city under two regulatory documents: a Critical Areas Ordinance and the Shoreline Master Program, which sets up rules for building around ecologically sensitive areas.

With 13 miles of shoreline and many more wet acres, those documents hold a grasp on Westport’s growth.

But previous assessments have misclassified many environments in the city, said John Shaw, director of the Westport South Beach Historical Society.

Shaw, who also chairs the Grays Harbor County Marine Resources Committee, sent a letter in September 2023 to Westport’s former mayor, Rob Bearden, prodding the city to commission a new third-party study of the city’s geomorphology, one “not driven by outside voices or agencies.”

“We need some of our own science,” Shaw wrote.

Though he is not a scientist, Shaw has studied the history of Westport’s changing landscapes through his work with the museum. He is convinced that many of the interdunal environments around the city are the product of human influence and haven’t carried the ecological benefits of a functioning wetland for a long time, perhaps since before white settlement.

According to a shoreline characterization study funded by the Washington State Department of Ecology in 2015, most reaches of Westport’s shoreline had high marks for natural functionality, “primarily related to diverse habitats, habitat features, and wetland presence, an important feature for providing water quality functions.”

That study is the baseline document for an ongoing update to the city’s Shoreline Master Program, or SMP, which regulates development under the state’s 1972 Shoreline Management Act. The act prioritizes water-dependent uses and protection of natural resources and covers a 200-foot radius from the ocean’s high-water mark, floodways, as well as “all wetlands associated with tidal waters.”

Because swathes of land in the city’s western half are tidally influenced wetlands, Shaw believes the SMP update could disproportionately affect the future of development in the city.

Ecology is still working on a final version after Westport submitted a draft last summer, along with public comments.

The city proposed draft broadens scenarios in which developers can clear, grade or fill land in the shoreline jurisdiction. Previously, those actions were only allowed in preparation for “water-dependent” developments, but the proposed amendment adds “water-enjoyment” and “water-related” uses, only when certain other criteria are met.

Nicole Stickney, an environmental planning consultant, told the city in a 2023 memo that other cities already have that broader language written into their shoreline documents, “and it appears beneficial to provide the same information for Westport in keeping with best practices.”

Westport City Administrator Kevin Goodrich said the new wetlands study will focus on the peninsula’s geomorphology — how the land formed — and will “overlay wetlands mapping to give us a better idea of what we’re looking at throughout the city.”

Goodrich said the work is independent of an ongoing Environmental Impact Statement draft for Westport Golf Links, a proposed 130-acre golf course and 60-room lodge within Westport Light State Park.

“That said, if we were to come across new information that would strengthen the EIS Draft we would look to incorporate the new data,” Goodrich said in an email.

The city’s request asks the chosen scientist to summarize a series of existing studies on coastal issues and habitats associated with the 600-acre park, and then perform an “independent third-party review, with particular focus on evaluating the degree to which its open ocean shoreline is a natural feature and characterizing the full range of anthropogenic impacts to it over time.”

An environmental engineering firm produced a 210-page wetland assessment for Washington State Parks in 2021, identifying a 337-acre wetland mosaic area providing “high habitat suitability for a range of species.” The assessment also noted the “poor condition” of wetlands in the north half of the park, which was cleared and graded 15 years ago for the development of a golf course that never happened.

Environmental groups filed a lawsuit in April to stop the Westport Links project, arguing an environmental covenant resolving a dispute with the former developer should limit wetlands fill for the current course.

The course developers, Westport Golf Links LLC, have altered original designs to trim total wetland impact from more than 50 acres to about 25 acres, an alternative set forth last year.

Mayor Welter said the city’s new study, which was initiated months before the lawsuit was filed, is not a response to the lawsuit. The new science will be “done from an objective outside scientific view, not from the lens of trying to promote or not promote anything.”

Contact reporter Clayton Franke at 406-552-3917 or clayton.franke@thedailyworld.com.

A map included in a 2015 Westport shoreline characterization study, commissioned by Washington State Parks, shows in green color interdunal wetlands “potentially associated” with the shoreline, as defined by the state.

AHBL/Herrera A map included in a 2015 Westport shoreline characterization study, commissioned by Washington State Parks, shows in green color interdunal wetlands “potentially associated” with the shoreline, as defined by the state.