Developers working in two Pierce County watersheds have a new option to offset unavoidable construction impacts to wetlands and other aquatic habitat.
The county’s new in-lieu fee program provides developers in the Chambers-Clover Creek Watershed and a portion of the Nisqually Watershed the opportunity to buy credits through the program rather than building their own project to mitigate unavoidable impacts to wetlands. The credits represent the expected cost of compensating for the lost or degraded wetland, stream or other freshwater habitat. In addition, the credits will pay for maintaining and monitoring two wetlands created by Pierce County, running the in-lieu fee program and expanding the program in the future.
Pierce County built the two wetland mitigation sites to reduce the amount of time between losing a wetland area to development and replacing the lost functions at a mitigation site. The 16-acre South Midland Wetland Preserve was built in 2008 and the 16-acre Larchmont Wetland Preserve was built in 2013.
“The program helps balance our community’s growth with preserving the environment we all share,” said Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy. “I appreciate the collaboration between Pierce County and its state and federal partners to make this program become a reality.”
Before the in-lieu fee program, developers either created new wetlands on site or bought property elsewhere to replace the impacted wetland. They also had to pay for maintaining and monitoring that new wetland for several years, as well as ensuring that the new wetland did not fail. Those options still exist, when appropriate.
The in-lieu fee program is available for use by both private and public projects. When developers apply for permits to construct their project, the county and other regulatory agencies will determine if the application qualifies for the in-lieu fee program. Developers can decide if they want to participate. Other alternatives to compensate for wetland loss on a site must be unfeasible in order to qualify for the program.
One of the main objectives of the in-lieu fee program is to provide high-quality, successful, long-term mitigation addressing the needs of the watersheds. The program will provide public benefit by applying mitigation resources toward the improvement of ecologically-impaired lands in the watersheds.
Pierce County is the second county in Washington to have an in-lieu fee program. The county partnered with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Washington State Department of Ecology, Puget Sound Partnership and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to develop the program.
The Corps provided technical assistance and legal review of the program to ensure it complied with federal regulations.
“The Corps believes that effective in-lieu fee programs are vital to helping it protect the aquatic environment, efficiently administer our regulatory program, and provide the public with fair, timely, and reasonable decisions,” said Gail Terzi, Army Corps of Engineers mitigation specialist. “Such programs are very intentional in how they embrace a watershed approach, and as such, are optimal tools for addressing watershed needs.”
The Washington State Department of Ecology provided $2.2 million for the county to develop the Larchmont site and develop the program. This partnership makes Pierce County’s in-lieu fee program unique because it is the only county to have a site built in advance using state grant dollars. Pierce County paid $3 million to buy property and develop the South Midland Wetland Reserve using Surface Water Management fees.
“We’re excited to see our state grant funding turn into a project that will have such a positive impact on the environment,” said Patricia Johnson, Washington State Department of Ecology wetland mitigation specialist. “The Pierce County in-lieu fee program is unique because it has mitigation sites that have already been constructed and are already providing important ecological functions.”
The concept of the in-lieu fee program came from the Puget Sound Partnership, which drafted the original proposal. Pierce County used that initial work to create its program.
"This program provides an efficient and effective market-based mechanism that balances the needs for human development and natural systems," said Sheida R. Sahandy, Puget Sound Partnership executive director. "By investing in large, contiguous restoration projects to offset the negative impacts of development, we are vastly increasing the likelihood of long-term ecological success. For the developers, it is fast and predictable. It is a win-win."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also provided significant technical expertise as the program was drafted and refined.
"The Environmental Protection Agency appreciates the county's proactive effort to protect these important urban watersheds," said David Allnutt, director of the EPA’s Office of Ecosystems, Tribal and Public Affairs. "Urban watersheds and their aquatic resources play a valuable role in the health of the overall ecosystem in this area. This program will not only offset impacts due to large or small construction projects, but will result in large-scale improvements to the watershed."
For more information about the program and how to participate, visit www.co.pierce.wa.us/inlieufee. PCTV also posted a story about the project at: https://youtu.be/k8MUfDrtzyg.
Mike Livingston-Halliday, Pierce County Public Works and Utilities public information specialist
Patricia Graesser, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public affairs officer
Jeff Philip, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency public affairs manager
Jessica Payne, Washington State Department of Ecology communications manager
Alicia Lawver, Puget Sound Partnership, public information officer