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Proposed rules could limit private land use

SNOQUALMIE VALLEY - Snoqualmie Valley residents will get a chance to voice their opinion on a proposed update to the King County Comprehensive Plan that has some property owners concerned the new rules could severely limit the use of their land.

The critical areas ordinance (CAO) is aimed at protecting natural habitats and could do so in part by increasing buffers near streams and critical areas and redefining environmental designations.

Residents are concerned that not only will those changes limit their ability to utilize their property, but that King County is offering unfair compensation for reducing the use of private land.

Metropolitan King County Councilman Dow Constantine has been assigned the task of helping see the critical areas ordinance through to adoption by the County Council. As chair of the County Council's Growth Management and Unincorporated Areas Committee, he will be listening to resident's concerns about the new regulations. Land restrictions requiring 65 percent of natural vegetation be kept on a parcel of land and development regulations limiting impervious surfaces to just 10 percent are just a few of the recommendations that have caused rural landowners to take note of the CAO.

To make the CAO more palatable to rural landowners, the county will be offering what it has called a "flexible regulatory path." Under that, landowners can develop a stewardship plan with the county that describes how they propose to utilize their land for homes and, if applicable, business. Constantine said the plan will act as a way to balance out all the regulations for landowners who may not be able to meet a certain regulation to the letter, but can show an environmentally sound plan for their land in the larger picture. A viable stewardship plan may also entitle landowners to enjoy tax breaks under the county's Public Benefit Rating System.

Constantine said the stewardship plan is a unique way for both the landowner and the county to ensure the rural area is an economically viable place that is hospitable to nature, specifically ground water for human consumption and salmon runs.

"That is the arena in which we are going to be able to provide people some kind of compensation or make it more worth their while to do what we all want to have done and that is save the fish," Constantine said.

Dealing with the county's permitting procedures, including its Public Benefit Rating System, can be slow going. Constantine said the council will be looking for ways to fund, and therefore streamline, the process of developing and enforcing a stewardship plan.

"The council wants to know more specifics. They don't want this to be another frustrating layer of regulation or bureaucracy," Constantine said. "They want this to be something that is easy and rewarding for landowners to do."

Some Valley residents are skeptical of additional regulations being easy or rewarding. Paul Carkeek, a Preston resident who has been following the county's land regulation efforts for years, said King County is offering what he calls an "equity gyre," an unfair form of compensation for reducing the uses and value of private land.

"Why pay for what you can take?" Carkeek said.

He said anything the county offers to offset a regulation is not really an incentive since it is a law the landowner will have to adhere to whether they want to or not.

"This is not an incentive," he said. "It promises a lot and gives very little."

Constantine will also be facing opposition within the County Council. Councilwoman Kathy Lambert, who represents the Snoqualmie Valley, said the CAO as a whole is flawed, not just the equity issue. According to Lambert, some of the regulations (such as limiting the number of cords of wood a person can have on their land) are just ridiculous and take away any rights landowners have to build equity with their land since they could only develop a fraction of it. Lambert questioned the possibility of the county making any landowner explain their rural home or business plan to the government.

"Whose business is it what you sell in America?" Lambert said.

Lambert said the mostly-urban majority of the council is imposing its views of environmental stewardship on a minority of rural residents. Rural landowners want to maintain the natural beauty of the county, but they don't want it in the way the council is presently planning to do it.

"It shows you the problem with having the urban people making the decisions for the rural people," she said.

Lambert has asked the council to show her how land will be assessed by the county assessor's office and how the regulations will add or detract from the value of a property. She said she has yet to receive a straight answer from the county and that the problem of assessing value and its environmental influences will fall prey to different opinions of what causes land to appreciate or depreciate.

"It's too subjective," she said.

Constantine also believes the problem of subjectivity will be a challenge, even with the environmental findings that drive the CAO recommendations. All the regulations will be based on what has been called "best available science," a word that is still ambiguous in terms of how it should be defined and what influence it should have on regulations.

"Jurisdictions have had different opinions about the role of best available science," he said. "I think statewide, it's an unresolved issue still."

Constantine realizes there will be some opposition to the CAO, but said the county needs to take the initiative to halt urban sprawl and protect wild areas. If not, he said growth would continue in a way those for and against the CAO would despair to see.

"What people in rural King County want to live in is a rural community," he said. "They didn't move to rural King County to have suburbs come to them."

At the upcoming meetings, Constantine said the county is willing to hear concerns as long as they are interjected with ideas, not just criticism.

"We need to apply creative thinking, not just as elected officials or the bureaucracy, but as citizens to figure out a third way," he said.

* King County will be hosting special evenings locally to talk with residents about the critical areas ordinance and the King County Comprehensive Plan Update. There is a meeting on Thursday, April 22, in Carnation at Carnation Elementary School, 4950 Tolt Ave., and on Monday, April 26, in Maple Valley at Shadow Lake Elementary, 22620 Sweeney Road S.E. Both meetings are from 6-8 p.m.

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