County's CAO goes into effect Jan. 1

SNOQUALMIE VALLEY - A controversial set of development regulations will take effect Jan. 1 after months of debate in and out of the Metropolitan King County Council.

At its Oct. 25 meeting, the County Council passed a set of critical areas, stormwater and clearing and grading ordinances, known collectively by many landowners as the Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO). The original draft recommend by county executive Ron Sims was revised by the Growth Management and Unincorporated Areas Committee before its passage, but much of its most contested parts remained intact.

One of the most controversial was a law requiring all plots of land to retain 65 percent of their native vegetation. The original draft also required that only 10 percent of land could be developed with an impervious surface.

The revised ordinance brought the required percentage of land with native vegetation down to 50, but only for plots of land with 5 acres or less. For plots with more than 5 acres, residents can clear either 2.5 acres or 35 percent of their land, whichever is greater. The revised ordinances also did away with the 10-percent rule for impervious surfaces.

The classifications for buffers near wetlands also changed. Originally, buffers from 50-300 feet were proposed for four categories of streams in the rural area. The revised ordinance has buffers for 25-300 feet based on a state Department of Ecology rating system.

Even with the changes, however, the ordinances were contested up until last Monday's vote, which was down party lines and divided by the urban and rural areas of the county. The council's seven democrats voted for the ordinances while the council's six republicans voted against them. The council's republicans, who cover the more rural areas of the county, said the ordinances amounted to a land grab.

"The real goal [of the ordinances] is to stop development," said Councilman Steve Hammond, who spoke at a press conference on Oct. 25. "The only ones who are asking that we push this legislation are either those who are a special interest group from Seattle who do not own land in the rural area or someone who has already developed land in the rural area and already got their piece of the American Dream."

Despite a lot of opinion to the contrary, the new ordinances do not prohibit growth, according the Master Builders Association (MBA), a home construction organization that has monitored the CAO for its members in King County.

"Executive Sims and chair [Councilman Dow] Constantine kept the Master Builders Association at the table throughout the entire process," said MBA King County Manager Tim Atterbery in a press release following the passage of the CAO.

Atterbery said later the MBA was mostly concerned with the regulations in the urban areas, which are smaller than those in the rural areas since 99 percent of the development MBA members do is in the county's urban areas.

He said the next logical step for the county is a massive education campaign that will allow landowners to figure out what they can do with their properties. So much has been written and said about the CAO that it has been hard for landowners to realize they will still have chances to develop their land under the new regulations, he said.

"You have to look at each property on a case-by-case basis," Atterbery said. "If you have a big investment on a piece of property and you're not sure whether or not you can do something with that investment, you need crystal clear clarification from the judges on this."

With so many questions surrounding the new set of ordinances, landowners may feel in the dark when figuring out what they can do with their property. The county's Department of Development and Environmental Services (DDES) hopes to change that with a workshop it will host, along with the MBA, on Dec. 10 in Bellevue. The workshop will be an introduction to what landowners can do with their land and what process development plans must goes through.

Cathy Ortiz, a DDES secretary, said that landowners can come to DDES with basic questions about their development plans, but anything in depth regarding a certain project requires calling ahead for an appointment. Since preapplication appointments cost $144 per hour, knowing as much as one can about the regulations beforehand can be a money saving move. While an exhaustive review of an individual project will have to be done, Ortiz said the county is working on other ways of getting information about the new ordinances out to landowners.

* The King County Department of Development and Environmental Service's property workshop will be held from 8 a.m. until noon on Friday, Dec. 10, at the Master Builders Association offices at 335 116th Ave. S.E., Bellevue. The workshop costs $35 and registration is required. To register online, and to find other information, visit To register by phone, contact Cathy Ortiz at (206) 296-6704, or by e-mail at

Editor Ben Cape can be reached at (425) 888-2311 or by e-mail at

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