Critical areas are environmentally sensitive areas in the landscape that are important for maintaining healthy, natural conditions that also support our local quality of life. They include Critical Aquifer Recharge Areas, Frequently Flooded Areas, Geologically Hazardous Areas, Fish & Wildlife Habitat Conservation Areas (FWHCA), and Wetlands. These “critical areas” provide many services humans value including economic opportunities, aesthetically pleasing communities, and a healthy environment. For example, wetlands help purify our water supply by trapping sediments and excess nutrients or heavy metals. Wetlands also perform numerous other functions such as flood protection, shoreline stabilization from forceful marine waves, groundwater recharge, and habitat used by many species for breeding, foraging, and cover.
In order to balance the effects of land development and use activities with environmental protection, Jefferson County adopted a Critical Areas Ordinance, now codified as Chapter 18.22 Jefferson County Code. The critical areas ordinance’s purpose is to ensure compliance with state law, the Growth Management Act, and to establish authorized methods and procedures to ensure the functions and values of critical areas are not degraded when allowing approved uses and development activities in the county. Adequate buffers between critical areas and any proposed development or land disturbing activity is one of the ways to protect critical areas. Another protective option is to implement a site-specific stewardship plan that provides more flexibility in mitigation proposals to compensate for impacts to critical areas and/or critical area buffers. Moreover, best management practices can be incorporated into existing or planned developments for critical areas to function better such as:
- avoid using chemicals in areas where the runoff could get into surface water or infiltrate into groundwater,
- avoid removing vegetation from critical areas and critical area buffers,
- apply only the amount of irrigation water that can be absorbed into the ground,
- and more!
The Growth Management Act requires a periodic review and update of the county’s Critical Areas Ordinance every eight years. Jefferson County is currently working on this periodic update and will be engaging with citizens for input.