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Property owners discuss Critical Areas Ordinance

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SNOQUALMIE VALLEY - Throughout unincorporated areas of the Snoqualmie Valley and King County, residents are seeing a threat to their rural lifestyle.

However, hey don't all see the same thing. As King County develops its Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO), a set of regulations that will put additional constraints on development and clearing, residents are worried about the sun setting on their country lifestyle. Proponents of the CAO see the ever-encroaching development from the Eastside lurking toward their properties, bringing the pollution and traffic of the urban areas. Opponents of the CAO see the county taking away their ability to invest in and work on land they have owned for years, if not generations.

Both proponents and opponents of the CAO own land in the county's unincorporated areas, the areas the new regulations would affect.

One of those residents is Wendy Walsh, who lives just outside of Woodinville. She has lived on 60 acres of land in unincorporated King County since 1962. She also lives in the Bear Creek Basin, an area north of Redmond that is home to the Bear Creek salmon runs. In order to protect the area, the county has imposed regulations on development that are unique to that area. Redmond, she said, has taken notice and adopted similar regulations inside its own limits.

"We were kind of the testing ground for those regulations [CAO regulations]," Walsh said.

Walsh, however, does not see these government development regulations as things that need to be fought or even tolerated. Rather, they are to be embraced. In 1970, she volunteered to have her own land designated as open space. Walsh said she also can speak to the increase in the value of her land, one of the benefits the county has lauded as a possible result of the CAO.

"The county is simply looking for consistency [in rural areas]. The county wants to work with people and give them the lifestyle they moved here for," she said. "For us, it's wonderful."

On the other side of the county, and the opinion spectrum, is Rodney McFarland. McFarland bought his 5-acre plot of land in May Valley in 2000 when looking for a place to stable horses and raise his children while giving them an idea of what hard work was. He runs a computer business from home, helps homeschool his children and boards horses on the 5 acres he owns and another 7 acres he leases from a neighbor.

"To me 'rural living' is working and living in the same place," McFarland said. "I get up and walk across the yard to go to work."

McFarland's opposition to county development regulations didn't start with the CAO, and he said rural landowners' feelings against it go back to before he ever arrived in the state. McFarland said that May Valley has long been home to farmers who worked the land responsibly. After development pressures started to threaten the natural features of the area, such as May Valley Creek, the county imposed regulations.

Problem was, according to McFarland, the regulations kept farmers from practicing the property management techniques that had kept them in business and the eco-systems on their land healthy. Cows, that had been allowed to graze up to the May Valley Creek's edge, and even drink from it, had to be kept a certain distance back from its banks. Farmers couldn't clear debris from streams, which allowed beavers to make habitats that caused more problems. McFarland said this caused deposits to build up in the creek, which in turn killed fish and aggravated flooding, another problem the county and May Valley residents have had to deal with in subsequent years.

The May Valley Creek actually runs right through McFarland's property. If the county had passed the CAO before any development had occurred on his land, McFarland said he wouldn't have been able to build any of the structures presently on his property.

There is only so much McFarland said he can hold against the county and the supporters of the CAO who live in urban areas. McFarland and his friends call them "urbals," King County residents from urban areas trying to make a home in the rural areas and therefore looking to keep everything looking just as it is now. To make new urbal residents happy, he said, the county will keep passing laws until development regulations basically fall underneath their own weight.

"It will get implemented until it is so ridiculous it won't make sense to anybody," he said.

McFarland said he would have trouble thinking of any rural landowner in or out of May Valley who would support the CAO.

Jack Webber, a Snoqualmie resident who once served on the North Bend City Council, can see why. He said supporters of the ordinance, such as himself, have faith in their elected officials to do conservation work, and are therefore not making much noise for the CAO.

Although his own King County Councilwoman Kathy Lambert is opposed to the present form of the CAO, Webber said he has faith in the other members on the County Council to see conservation through and that he can replace any resistance to the CAO from his own elected officials with a little political activism from himself.

"What bothers me is that people have not looked at the science of it [the CAO]," Webber said. "They are stuck in their philosophical problems with it."

Whether it is the science or the philosophy of the CAO, Valley landowners have found a lot to disagree with. Dave Battey owns just about half of what was originally his grandfather's farm, the Swenson Farm, just above the old Weyerhaeuser Mill site outside Snoqualmie. He hasn't studied the most recent draft of the CAO, but whenever the county starts talking about additional restrictions on what he can do on his property, he is skeptical.

"If they do anything, they should not be restricting uses and making it difficult to live on land," he said.

The King County Council's Growth Management and Unincorporated Areas Committee is hoping to send the ordinance, and other updates of its comprehensive plan, to the County Council by next month. Residents of unincorporated King County who want to retain a life built in the ecologically-rich lands of the country will be keeping a close eye on what happens in the coming months.

Ben Cape can be reached at (425) 888-2311 or by e-mail at ben.cape@valleyrecord.com.

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