The Comp Plan in a Nutshell

There are many aspects of the comprehensive plan for San Juan County. Each person may have his or her own special interest, or, for many people, there may be no particular interest, as that individual has not really known, or understood, what the comp plan "means". Really means.

The view taken here is that, more than any other factor, population impacts the quality of life for San Juan County. How big we are, or will become, is the 800 pound gorilla that dominates our collective future. The comp plan is required by law to describe how big we will become.

For reasons that have not been explained, the Board of County Commissioners did not ask for, or direct the Planning Department to produce, comp plan ("CP") population figures during the remand period, i.e., the period during which the county was to fix the problems found by the Western Board ("Board") in its 1999 Decision. Challenges to the failure to produce such information have resulted in the production of some or much of the requested information in table form. An extraction of the information in one table provided by San Juan County on 1/9/2001 produced the following chart.

What it is

du="dwelling unit"; ac="acre"

What it means

Population in comp plan terms is a derivative of density. GMA (Washington State's Growth Management Act) requires counties to plan for a certain amount of population growth, but the growth is generally considered to be "urban" growth, so as to avoid sprawl, and the means for accomodating that growth is provided in terms of "density", i.e., so many dwelling units (du) per amount of land (usually measured in acres). Thus, for example, a "zoning" or "density" of 1 du/5 acres would mean that a property owner could build 1 home (dwelling unit, also called single family residence, or sfr) for each 5 acres he or she owned. If a landowner owned 26 acres of "r5" land, theoretically the land could be subdivided to four 5 acre pieces, and one six acre piece, resulting in 5 separate legal parcels each permitted to have a sfr. San Juan County assumes that 2.175 people live in each sfr, so if one knows how many parcels there are, one can quickly calculate how many people are, or could be, located on those parcels.

Rural lands are to be protected under GMA, to avoid sprawl. In San Juan County's case, most folks who live and visit here like the "ruralness" that exists today, whereby not much of the rural lands appear developed. The comp plan, or CP, would allow much more subdivision than appears as one drives around the various islands. The chart above shows how that subdivision would be allocated among different density zones.

The majority of parcels (82%), or about 4 times larger than the rest of the density zones put together, is allocated to "R5" or 1 du/5 acres. This number of parcels consumes over 70% of the rural land. The chart shows the rapidly declining percentages of the total for the 10, 15 and 20 acre/du categories. What this means is that the majority of property owners will, under the currently valid CP, be able to subdivide their property down to 1 du/5--the translation of this in visual terms is lots and lots of hobby farms and ranchettes.

The second thing to notice on the chart is the little black triangles. Each shows the average parcel size for that density zone. Note that, for example, in density category 5 acres/du (or, inversely stated as 1 du/5 acres), the average parcel size is 3.4 acres. The fact that the average size is much less than 5 suggests that there are already a huge number of very small parcels, parcels way smaller than 5 acres, that already exist in this density designation. These parcels are called "nonconforming" because they do not conform to the density designation zone they are in. They are "grandfathered" in from a time when the density zone did not exist. Consequently, the CP is saying that those large numbers of hobby farms won't be 5 acres, but, on average, will be just over 3 acres. Note that the little triangle for each of the other density categories is far less than the density category itself (e.g., the 1 du/15 acre category has an average parcel size of 1 du/7.42 acres, or about half of what one might expect for this zone).

So What?

The CP says we can have lots of small lots in the "country" (rural lands) while claiming that we are still pretty much rural. The CP has other provisions that will increase density (called density bonuses) that would increase the number of parcels in rural lands. The CP had, until successfully challenged by the little band of appellants who are bringing you this web information, a guest house provision that would double the effective density in all parts of the county. The Western Board struck down the county's "guest house" land use policy. In response, San Juan County is challenging the Western Board ruling on guest houses in Superior Court. We don't know what the outcome of that challenge will be.

Without any other density bonuses, the population of the rural lands can increase about 3 times from approximately 11,000 today to over 31,000 when all currently allowed subdivision is complete.

Actitity centers, like Olga, Lopez Village, Deer Harbor, help round out the population profile of the CP. There are two classes of Activity Centers: those that are "UGA's" and those that are not. The CP proposed "UGA" (Urban Growth Area) activity centers are: Eastsound, Lopez Village, and Friday Harbor. The first 2 of these are subject to litigation, as players on Lopez and Orcas resist the growth implications inherent in a GMA-defined "UGA".

However, the county population that can occur in the CP when all properties have been fully developed can be calculated from these 3 categories of land:

Land Type


Buildout Population(1)

Year 2000 Estimated Occupied Parcels/Population (1)

Rural and Resource Land


41830 (2)

3571 / 8375

Activity Centers in Rural


2928 (2)

484 / 1053

UGA's (Friday Harbor, Lopez Village, Eastsound


12802 (2)

1671 / 3418




5906 / 12846

(1) These figures reflect no allowance for existing or future guesthouses

(2) Data from SJC Planning Dept, Table 3, 9/14/2000 (w/ maximum density bonuses), Index number #231432. Other estimate data, produced by SJC Planning and with different results, regarding rural components of this table, can be found at #260166.

The current full time resident population of San Juan County (Jan, 2001) is estimated to be about 14,000. (2000 Census Data is expected in March or April 2001) The CP would allow us to more than quadruple our year 2000 estimated population size. Rural character would change as the number of vacant existing parcels are built upon combined with the number of new parcels that can be created from subdivision are also built upon. The 'guest house' policy, referred to earlier, would legally allow the number of structures to double, thus potentially doubling the about 57,000 population to 115,000. None of these figures includes allowance for visitors and guests, which in the summer more than doubles the wintertime population. Currently, SJC estimates that 29% of all parcels that have a SFR also have a guesthouse. (index number #232437)

One of the problems with the materials that are offered to the public that describe the CP is that they don't tell a reader, even a smart reader, what the plan really means. The information in the above chart is nowhere in the plan, but must be extracted from the Official Maps. No one has the time to pour over the maps, parcel by parcel, with a precision measuring tool, a magnifying glass and a pad of paper, and measure each parcel, calculate its acres, and add them all up by land use. Yet unless the public has access to (and knowledge of) the county's GIS (Geographic Information System), there would be no other way to produce that chart.

Here are two more charts about rural land changes that are inherent in the CP, presented visually on the Official Maps, but otherwise not described. Can you tell what they mean?



For those who have read this far, and still wonder what these charts mean, please contact us by email or phone. The contact person is Joe Symons, 376-4549, or email at: "joe AT". We welcome your interest.