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Challenges to CAO remain despite referendum ruling

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SNOQUALMIE VALLEY - Despite a King County Superior Court ruling last week that prohibited a citizen referendum of a set of development regulations, the public and King County have not seen the end of challenges to the much-disputed Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO).

Legal challenges remain for the CAO, which went into effect on Jan. 1. The first came from the Citizens' Alliance for Property Rights, a citizens group that had fought the passage of the CAO by submitting 17,000 signatures to the county that it gathered in just under the two months that followed the approval of the contentious development regulations. The CAO has drawn the ire of rural residents and property rights activists because of its regulations, which include requirements that prohibit landowners from clearing any more than 35-50 percent of their land.

Once the group of ordinances, known collectively as the CAO, were passed in October, opponents got to work gathering signatures that would have put the ordinances before voters sometime this year. King County, along with two environmental groups, 1,000 Friends of Washington and the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, filed a lawsuit blocking the proposed referendum. A King County judge last week sided with the county, citing a state decision that prohibits such ordinances from referendum.

"This ruling ensures that our community's health and livability will remain protected," said John Mauro, director of the Livable Communities Coalition, in a press release following the ruling. "Throwing out two years of good work and thousands of comments from citizens wouldn't have just wasted taxpayer money, it would have eliminated clean water protections and safeguards from flood and erosion damage. And it would have canceled the myriad of development flexibilities that the county worked hard to integrate."

The decision can be appealed within 30 days and may be heard by the state Supreme Court.

Although the referendum push has stopped for the time being, another legal challenge remains. The Pacific Legal Foundation, a California-based property rights group, announced last fall it would file a lawsuit against the county that disputed the constitutional basis of the CAO. During the weeks that led up to the passage of the CAO, opponents of the ordinance said the regulations would unleash a flurry of such lawsuits.

Sam Rodabough, a Bellevue attorney for the foundation, said he was waiting to see what would happen with the citizen referendum before moving forward with the foundation's lawsuit, so the compliant that was filed in December was more of a holding action that was meant to be with the county before any deadlines for contesting the CAO passed. Since the referendum has been thwarted, at least temporarily, he said the foundation will be developing the lawsuit in the next couple of weeks by talking to and gathering more plaintiffs.

Also in December, the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors filed a petition with the Central Puget Sound Growth Management Hearings Board, a regional body that handles complaints regarding the state Growth Management Act (GMA). The county has said the GMA requires it have a set of developments like the CAO in order to deal with growth, but the association contests that the county is actually disobeying the GMA by not addressing housing issues in its comprehensive plan. Although the association's petition does not seek to overturn the CAO, it does mention the CAO as one of the factors the county failed to take into account when it drafted parts of its comprehensive plan last year that deal with everything from the affordability of housing to the stock of housing.

Michael Spence, the attorney representing the association's petition, said the county has passed a lot of regulations that have prohibited housing without indicating where additional housing would go.

"Where else in the county are they going to have housing?" he said. "No one has had this kind of conversation yet."

If the hearings board sides with the association, the county may have to go back and redraft parts of its comprehensive plan to deal with housing issues. The hearing for the association's petition is March 31, with a May 31 deadline for a ruling.

While public and government bodies hash out the future of the CAO and other housing issues, property owners and realtors are figuring out how to buy and sell property in the rural areas. Their initial assessments are grim. While property with a house already on it may continue to appreciate, they said land with no development on it will be all but worthless.

Chuck Doty, a realtor based out of the John L. Scott Real Estate office in North Bend, said an undeveloped piece of riverfront property could have been worth up to $300,000. Now, with just recreational uses allowed on such properties, it is probably worth around $25,000.

Doty said it is sad because so many people have their financial futures wrapped up in their property. While some of those with comfortable pensions and retirement funds may be all right in their twilight years, those who relied on property to help them retire or help their children stay in the Valley may be frustrated in the coming years.

Those wanting to buy their first home may be priced out of King County and if the real estate market becomes too hard, Doty said the rest of the economy will suffer.

"A lot of things trickle down from the real estate business," he said.

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