Urban development has profound impacts on ecological patterns and processes making the scientific information required for developing environmental ordinances central for mitigating these negative ecological impacts. Washington State requires that planners use the best available science (BAS) to formulate land use ordinances as part of the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA). We present empirical findings describing challenges to planners in defining “best available science” and using BAS to create local ordinances that balance development needs with natural resource protection. We interviewed city and county planners (and their consultants) in western Washington to determine what they find useful about BAS, whether or not BAS is applicable to their jurisdictions, and what constraints they experience in reviewing and using BAS to create or update their land use ordinances. Our results suggest that applying the BAS requirement is particularly difficult in urban areas. Specifically, planners had difficulty applying results from research conducted in systems dissimilar to their urban landscapes. These challenges to planners were exacerbated by (1) a lack of resources and (2) political tensions among stakeholders with competing values in urban settings. We conclude with recommendations for improving the consideration of science in statewide land-use planning.
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We are grateful to Gordon Bradley, Clare Ryan, Marina Alberti and the Urban Ecology Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship Program for suggestions to improve the manuscript. This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (IGERT-0114351).
The following is the full interview conducted with planners in western Washington State, as well as the consultants they hired, associated with the update of critical areas ordinances (CAOs) in their jurisdictions. The interviews were conducted primarily face-to-face, and the questions are a mix of three types: open–ended, fixed response, i.e. yes/no, and scale questions. The interviews were taped and later transcribed, and the text was used in analyses presented in the main article. We do not present results from all of the data collected below in the present article.
Introduction spoken to interviewee prior to beginning interview
We are interested in the science–policy relationship, and our goal is to understand how the critical areas ordinance update process varies across jurisdictions and what factors can explain this variation. Specifically, we are focusing on wetlands, fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas, and anadromous fish.
Questions to planners:
Within your department, please explain the main steps in the update process, and identify the main people involved and their roles.
What other groups are part of the update process and how are they related to your department and each other?
What stage in the update is your jurisdiction currently in?
Questions to consultants:
Please explain what you were specifically hired to do for the city or county’s CAO update.
How extensive of a review were you tasked with?
How far into this process are you?
Questions to all:
Has your jurisdiction completed a critical areas inventory? How detailed is it?
Has your current CAO changed since the last CAO?
In a general sense, how much has it changed?
More specifically, what types of changes occurred?
Do you expect that this update process lead to additional variances or exemptions in your new ordinance?
Considering all the changes you’ve just described, what are the main factors you think are responsible for these changes?
Are any of the changes being made to the current CAO a direct result of your BAS review? If yes, which ones? Please describe why. If no, please describe why not.
(If update not fully completed) Do you anticipate the final draft of your Critical Areas Ordinance will be different from your current draft? On a scale of 1–5, how much do you expect it will change?
1 2 3 4 5 ? No minor change moderate change significant change very sig. change don’t know change (too early)
In addition to your Critical Areas Ordinance, does your jurisdiction have other measures or regulations to protect or conserve specific critical area types?
What is your working definition of BAS?
What types of scientific information constitute BAS?
How did you compile your BAS list? For example, did you start with an existing list?
Are you familiar with the BAS list prepared by the state Office of Community Development?
Does your bibliography vary from it?
What qualities or characteristics of BAS make it useful to you?
When there is conflict in BAS, how do you decide what BAS to include in making recommendations for the CAO?
What types of information do you pull from BAS?
Using an example, could you describe how you synthesize multiple ideas, numbers, or information found in BAS?
If BAS suggests a range of biophysical criteria to protect a critical area type, how do you decide what criteria to recommend for the CAO?
How well does BAS apply to the critical areas in your jurisdiction?
Can you describe why/why not using an example?
Are there any constraints on your review of BAS?
(Only for those who have completed their update process) Did your BAS review lead to any specific biophysical changes?
(If YES) Was one of those changes in your buffer widths?
(If YES) Can you identify any specific BAS that led to the buffer width change?
If the BAS didn’t lead to that change, how did you arrive at the specific change?
(If NO) Why not?
Were there any other specific changes to the biophysical criteria?
We’re interested in three main types of critical areas. I’d like to know which of them this jurisdiction has.
Fish & Wildlife Habitat Conservation Areas?
I’m going to read you a direct quote from the RCW (36.70A.172) related to Critical Areas Ordinances and then ask you to interpret three parts of it.
“In designating and protecting critical areas under this chapter, counties and cities shall include the best available science in developing policies and development regulations to protect the functions and values of critical areas.”
For each CA type you just listed, how do you interpret “designating and protecting”?
For these same critical areas, how do you interpret “functions and values”?
How do you interpret “shall include the best available science”?
Are you working with scientific experts on this update? (If yes) What kind?
On a scale of 1–5, what is the priority of the update process for your jurisdiction?
1 2 3 4 5 No priority Please explain. minimum priority moderate priority high priority very high priority
Is there a specific person or group who is making the update a priority? (If yes) Who and why?
Does this priority impact the way the science is reviewed or how the ordinance is updated? (If yes) How?
What proportion of your time is devoted to the update process?
Are there any competing environmental regulatory issues you are dealing with?
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Mills, A., Francis, T., Shandas, V. et al. Using best available science to protect critical areas in Washington state: challenges and barriers to planners. Urban Ecosyst 12, 157 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11252-008-0071-x
- Best available science
- Critical areas