Building on the Key Peninsula: Knowing the Basics


Sara Thompson, KP News

It’s no secret: Houses for sale on the Key Peninsula can be hard to find. For some that means building a home of their own. If embarking on that adventure, consider a few pointers from the departments that determine if, what and where you can build. 

The first step: Get your property parcel number and find out if there are any factors that could limit building. Important issues include wetlands, flood zones, steep slopes, setbacks and erosion control requirements. There may be a building moratorium due to recent logging or there may be parcel alerts that will need to be resolved before any development takes place. 

Mike Halliday, from the communications section of Planning and Land Services (PALS), said the initial search can be done online at the PALS website on their “About My Property” page. Staff is also available to talk to directly at the Pierce County Development Center in Tacoma. 

The Tacoma Pierce County Health Department (TPCHD) staff joined PALS staff at the development center in October 2018, streamlining the permitting process, according to its communication specialist, Steve Metcalf. 

TPCHD helps with septic system and drinking water permits and PALS answers questions related to other aspects of property development. People can also use a live chat feature or Skype on the planning website during the permit center’s hours to talk with staff.

Bob Suggs, TPCHD environmental health specialist for the on-site sewage and well-permitting program, is at the Key Peninsula Community Council office in the KC Corral on Tuesdays and Thursdays to answer questions. “Two things are nonnegotiable if you want to build—access to water and the ability to safely discharge waste water,” he said. “Everything else can be negotiable. It might be expensive, but there can be a resolution.”

Metcalf concurred. He said, “Contact the health department to find out if the property is on a water system or will need a well. If it is on a public water system, you’ll need a water availability letter from the water provider. If you need a well, you’ll have to work with the health department to get permits.” For septic systems, the owner needs to contact a septic system designer who can evaluate soil conditions on the property, and then prepare and submit the septic design applications to the health department for review. 

The two significant changes that have impacted permits in the last year are the recent update in the Shoreline Master Plan and the logging moratorium regulations. 

Halliday said that the new shoreline regulations “establish a more deliberate process to ensure impacts to the shoreline are avoided or minimized and, when impacts are unavoidable, to ensure adequate mitigation is provided.” He added, “Of course, the most immediate effect on new shoreline development is to require it be set back farther from the water to protect the shoreline.”

The old regulations had a uniform 50-foot setback from the ordinary high water mark, defined by the Washington State Department of Ecology as the biological vegetation mark. The buffer now varies from 0 to 150 feet. For most parcels on the Key Peninsula the buffer is 75 feet but, for example, where the shoreline environment is deemed conservancy rather than residential the buffer is 100 feet.

If the parcel has been logged using a state permit, there may be a development moratorium. The regulations surrounding building on logged property were tightened in 2018. The current ordinance eliminates the ability to lift the six-year moratorium on applications for any nonforestry uses except for single-family dwellings.

The changes were designed to encourage landowners to protect critical areas by following county rules when they log. Before the new rules, county regulations allowed the lifting of that development moratorium, for a fee, without a waiting period, whether or not logging occurred in compliance with Pierce County’s development regulations. This resulted in a “logging loophole” (see “State Rules Open Logging ‘Loophole,’ ” KP News, April 2017). 

The new ordinance eliminated the ability to lift the moratorium on applications for any nonforestry uses except for single-family dwelling exceptions. Under the new rules, the moratorium can be lifted immediately if the landowner qualifies for a single-family dwelling exception—if no logging occurred in areas prohibited by the county. 

If critical areas were logged, the moratorium can be lifted in four to six years, but mitigation and reforestation requirements must be met. Law requires that the logged land be reforested, and work such as stump removal is prohibited, as it is considered a conversion activity.