Environmental groups and county spar with citizens over CAO
October 2, 2008 · Updated 11:31 AM
SEATTLE - Horns blaring and signs and American flags waving, rural residents marched on Seattle last Tuesday to make their point: No CAO.
The CAO is the Critical Areas Ordinance, which, along with its companion regulations controlling land clearing and stormwater run-off, has drawn the wrath of rural residents, despite county efforts to make them more palatable.
For about 45 minutes the protesters circled several city blocks as city of Seattle police cleared their way. The protest was cut short because more officers were needed to escort the visiting king and queen of Spain on a shopping trip.
The protest came just hours after the county and two environmental groups filed a lawsuit that would prevent attempts to overturn the ordinances using the referendum process.
The caravan of about 50 trucks, many hauling horse trailers, stopped traffic on Seattle's busy Fourth and Fifth avenues during the noon hour to bring their protest to the county courthouse and to County Executive Ron Sims' office in the city's tallest skyscraper.
Sims missed the protest as he was out of his office at previously scheduled meetings.
The trucks stretched for about a half-mile. Sheriff's deputies and Seattle police stood guard at the entrances to the courthouse and the Columbia Center.
One of the signs helped explain the fuss if Seattle residents didn't quite understand it. It read, "Let Sims take 65% of your land."
The new regulations require that rural property owners leave 50 percent or 65 percent of their land in a relatively natural state, depending on its size.
"We got the point across,'' said Rodney McFarland of May Valley. He's president of the Citizens' Alliance for Property Rights, which organized the protest.
The alliance also is gathering signatures for three referendums that would let residents in unincorporated areas vote on whether to overturn the three ordinances.
As of last Monday night, the group had collected about 4,000 signatures. The group wants about 12,000 signatures as a cushion because it's estimated about 8,200 valid signatures are needed to place the measures on the March ballot.
Grim-faced county officials watched the protest, handing out press releases and a glossy new brochure that explains the controversial new ordinances.
They said that they haven't done a good job explaining the regulations to rural residents and also were trying to counteract the misinformation they say is coming from foes of the new rules.
The rules were adopted to protect such rural resources as drinking water supplies and salmon streams against further development.
"We think there is a lot of misunderstanding about what the CAO does and does not do,'' said Carolyn Duncan, a spokeswoman for the county. She said the new regulations don't affect existing uses nor are there changes in zoning.
The regulations don't allow clear cutting without a forestry permit. Scientific studies show that rural basins need at least 65 percent of their forests to prevent severe damage to streams.
On Nov. 21, the county and two environmental groups filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court against McFarland on the grounds that a referendum isn't a legal way to overturn environmental legislation required by the state's Growth Management Act.
However, citizens could challenge the new regulations through the state's Growth Management Hearings Board.
The Pacific Legal Foundation also is preparing a lawsuit against the county.
"While we respect the citizens' right to initiative and referendum, the case law is clear. This ordinance package is not subject to that process,'' Sims said in a prepared statement.
The lawsuit asks that a judge declare that the county can't place the referendums on the ballot.
But, Rob McKenna of Bellevue, speaking outside the courthouse as a County councilman and not as the state's new attorney general, defended the three referendums.
McKenna said that a referendum can be used to overturn environmental legislation that updates existing rules.
Now, McFarland said, his group has to fight for the right to use the referendum process.
"Put this on the ballot. This is America,'' he said.
County workers, jurors and others stopped in front of the courthouse to watch the protest for a few moments. One was County Councilman Dwight Pelz, an ardent supporter of the environmental regulations and the public's right to protest.
"I congratulate them on a great protest,'' he said.
Not everyone carrying signs opposed the new environmental regulations.
Laura Wishik of Vashon Island carried a sign that read, "This rural landowner supports the CAO.''
She and others on the island support the regulations because they protect the island's fragile aquifer, the islanders' only source of water.
"It's a life and death issue,'' she said.
There were some pointed exchanges and personal attacks during the protest.
Robert Larsen of Carnation, standing on the side of Fourth Avenue holding an armful of signs, yelled at Karen Wolf, one of the key architect's of county's environmental regulations, to step in front of one of the trucks.
Wolf was watching the protest from the sidelines.
Armen Yousoufian of Vashon Island, who got the county to release documents related to stadium financing after years of trying, asked one of the environmental leaders backing the lawsuit against McFarland why the public shouldn't get a chance to vote on the referendums.
Tim Trohimovich, planning director for the 1000 Friends of Washington, said a vote "is a waste of the taxpayers' money.'' McKenna's assessment that the referendums are legal is wrong, he said, and not supported by case law.
Dean Radford covers King County. He can be reached at email@example.com or (253) 872-6719.