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
* 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
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. ...
"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 email@example.com
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