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Changes to non-conforming 75 percent rebuild rule in the works

This article has been revised for clarification and to correct two errors which are explained at the end.

In 1998 San Juan County Commissioner John Evans and his two fellow commissioners adopted county code (Ordinance #2 in 1998) which said a non-conforming structure which has more than 75 percent of its replacement value destroyed cannot be rebuilt. Now in 2011, Evans is one of the more strident of a contingent of residents misinforming others of the consequences of non-conformance.

So what is non-conformance? Rules change. Think about a car. A 1960s car couldn't meet standards required in 2011. It's the same with a house. Over time building codes change as safer ways are found to construct things or new materials are being used. Setbacks and buffers change as more is learned on how to protect water and the environment. Properties become subject to height restrictions and size limitations as citizen committees draw up new regulations for sub-areas.

So there are any number of ways a house for example can become non-conforming. Does that mean it must then be made conforming? Of course not. Do you have to take your car every year and make it conform to the new safety standards or else you can't buy insurance or get a loan? Of course not.

The problem that exists is self-inflicted. Instead of making its own rule regarding rebuilding a house after it was destroyed by fire or an act of God, the county defaulted to the state's 75 percent of the resale value rule. The county had the option to create its own standard. WAC 173-27-080 When nonconforming use and development standards do not exist in the applicable master program, the following definitions and standards shall apply.

Back in 1998, Evans and the two other commissioners approved the Shoreline Master Plan with the 75 percent restriction.

The Shoreline Master Plan Update which has just started will remove the 75 percent limitation. It won't matter how much of the replacement value of a house is damaged, the owner bill be able to rebuild to the original configuration in the shoreline.

This takes care of property in shoreline critical areas. The 75 percent rule does not exist for upland critical areas. Any rules regarding rebuilding non-conforming houses in upland critical areas are being written in the Critical Areas Ordinance so it is clear rebuilding will be allowed wherever the house was even if it was in buffer areas or setbacks, according to county staff.

The original article used 70 percent instead of 75. It also stated the percentage applied to upland critical areas and structures which were non-conforming because of height restrictions, setbacks or size. We apologize for the errors.

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