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Revised CAO set to go before County Council

SEATTLE - Restrictions on the amount of land that owners of small and mid-sized rural properties could clear would be eased if amendments to the update of the county's controversial Critical Areas Ordinance are approved.

The amendments were announced Sept. 15 by Dow Constantine of Seattle, who chairs the King County Council's Growth Management and Unincorporated Areas Committee.

King County Executive Ron Sims had proposed limited clearing to 35 percent. Under Constantine's proposal, owners of lots five acres or smaller could clear up to 50 percent of their land.

A large majority of lots in rural unincorporated areas are five acres or less. However, Constantine stressed that the goal of retaining 65 percent of a watershed basin in native vegetation is still intact.

Sims supports the changes. He has worked with the council committee for the past six months on what are actually three ordinances that control what can be done in sensitive rural areas.

Sims' proposed update has been roundly criticized by some rural residents who say it is an illegal taking of their property value.

But Constantine said the future of King County is not one of "endless sprawl."

Constantine said he wants to ease the burdens imposed on rural landowners by the original proposal, while still protecting the environment.

"What we have here are practical measures," he said.

Property owners who fail to follow the eased regulations could face action by a code-enforcement officer, just like they would for any violation.

To make the regulations fairer, Constantine also is proposing to eliminate a rule that limited the amount of impervious surface to 10 percent of a property. Instead, a property owner would have to use what are officially known as best management practices to control runoff. Those include directing runoff to a forested area.

He also wants to determine the size of a buffer around a sensitive area, such as a wetland, on a case-by-case basis. That is a contrast to the strict buffer sizes proposed by Sims.

The changes to Sims' proposal are supported by the environmental community, including the Audubon Society and the 1,000 Friends of Washington.

However, some County Council members still are skeptical and the most vocal critics in rural areas say the county needs to start from scratch.

David Irons of Sammamish, who's leading the negotiations for Republicans on the council, said he's pleased that Constantine included some of his suggestions for improving the proposal. Those include removing a requirement that the clearing limits be placed on a property's title.

But, Irons said the 50-percent clearing limit is still an arbitrary number, just as protecting 65 percent of the forest in a watershed basin is arbitrary.

"I think the train is continuing to move, but we haven't yet reached the train station," he said.

At a press conference last week, Constantine said the Democrats, who hold the council majority, and the Republicans may simply have "to agree to disagree."

Among the key changes are:

* Owners of lots five acres or larger could clear 2 1/2 acres, or 35 percent, whichever is larger.

* For lots under 1 acre, clear ing needed for utilities, septic and access would not count toward the clearing limit.

* Areas already cleared legally won't apply to the proposed limits, even if the use of the property changes or a building is added.

* Constantine also wants to restructure such county programs as the Public Benefit Rating System, which provides tax incentives to preserve forest, replant trees and protect wildlife habitat.

The King County Council's Growth Management and Unincorporated Areas Committee was scheduled to consider the amendments this week. A public hearing on the Critical Areas Ordinance is scheduled for Oct. 18. The county must adopt the update by Dec. 1.

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