Court decision sparks debate on use of rural lands
Rural property owners and  environmentalists  are  debating  how  King
County should protect streams after the state  Supreme  Court  decided
not to review an appellate ruling that struck down a companion law  to
the 2004 Critical Areas Ordinance.

By Keith Ervin

Seattle Times staff reporter

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    * Archive | Big court victory for rural property owners

While rural property owners celebrate the demise of a King County  law
that  severely  limited  how  much  vegetation  they   could   remove,
environmentalists and county officials are wondering  how  to  protect
streams and threatened chinook salmon.

The state Supreme Court said Tuesday it wouldn't  review  a  Court  of
Appeals ruling that struck down the controversial clearing-and-grading
law as an improper tax or fee on development.

Passed in 2004 along with a new  Critical  Areas  Ordinance,  the  law
required rural property owners to keep native vegetation on 50  to  65
percent of their land, depending on the size of the property.

Advocates of the law said it reflected a growing  body  of  scientific
research showing the health of streams  deteriorates  sharply  when  a
significant amount of forest cover is cut down in a watershed.

But the law sparked a huge backlash among rural landowners,  who  said
it took away their ability to use most of their  land.  That  reaction
didn't stop County Executive Ron Sims  who proposed the  ordinance  
from winning re-election in 2005 over David Irons, a Metropolitan King
County Council member who opposed the law.

In a news release that implicitly likened the clearing restrictions to
a vampire, Pacific Legal Foundation attorney  Brian  Hodges  said  the
Supreme Court "has served justice by driving a stake  through  one  of
the most extreme and outrageous assaults on  property  rights  in  the
United States."

Hodges represented the Citizens' Alliance for Property Rights  in  its
lawsuit challenging the law.

Citizens' Alliance President Steve  Hammond,  who  voted  against  the
clearing ordinance as  a  County  Council  member,  said  it  required
property owners to give up use of two-thirds of their land.

"The only way I know how to get folks who don't live in  the  affected
area to understand it is to say, 'What if I walked into your  bathroom
and said, 'You have three fixtures: You can keep one and the other two
have to go?' " Hammond said.

Supporters of the law  said  the  high  court's  decision  complicates
efforts to keep streams healthy and save Puget Sound.

"We're disappointed that the Supreme Court is not going  to  hear  the
case. We're evaluating our options, and  we'll  develop  a  course  of
action soon," said Carolyn Duncan, spokeswoman for Sims.

"The  No.  1  problem  for  Puget  Sound  is  the  disruption  of  the
hydrology," said Kathy Fletcher,  executive  director  of  People  for
Puget Sound. "Stormwater issues start at the point of development. The
most effective way of managing stormwater is to allow Mother Nature to
do most of the job. ...

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"For the taxpayer, the most expensive way of taking care of salmon and
streams and Puget Sound is to try to re-create what Mother Nature does
for free. For the taxpayer this could be pretty bad news."

Or it could mean higher  costs  and  a  more  cumbersome  process  for
property owners who want to develop their rural land,  said  Stephanie
Warden,  director  of  the  county  Department  of   Development   and
Environmental Services (DDES).

To keep streams healthy, Warden said, the county  now  might  have  to
require  property  owners  to  submit  studies   showing   how   their
development proposals would affect streams.

"We felt it was easier on the  property  owners  to  have  a  specific
clearing limit," she said.

Hodges warned county officials not to require such  studies.  If  they
do, he said, "What's going to be cumbersome and costly is the  lawsuit
that will follow. ... If they  are  going  to  require  that  private-
property owners  set  aside  these  massive  open-space  tracts  as  a
condition of development, the burden is on  the  government  to  prove
that it is necessary."

Asked if the county would stop enforcing the clearing law immediately,
DDES spokeswoman  Paula  Adams  said  officials  are  consulting  with
lawyers. She said the county hasn't yet received a final  ruling  from
the Snohomish County Superior Court trial judge.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com


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