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Concerns raised over land ordinance

SNOQUALMIE VALLEY - Judith Finney is just one of many county residents who have reservations about the Critical Area's Ordinance (CAO) proposed by King County.

According to Finney, the county is using bad science, bad politics and just bad sense as it comes up with new regulations to protect wildlife habitats in the county's unincorporated areas.

"We are not just stewards of the land, we own the land," she said. "This takes away property rights."

County residents have been closely watching the progress of the ordinance, which has been proposed as an update to the current Sensitive Area's Ordinance (SAO) that is part of the county's Comprehensive Plan. King County officials said they need to update the Comprehensive Plan so it is in line with current standards for the state's Growth Management Act and the national Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act.

"We haven't had an update to the Sensitive Areas Ordinance since 1990," said Henry Reinert, special projects manager for the King County Department of Development and Environmental Services (DDES). "A lot of things have changed."

The CAO has been criticized since it was first introduced last year and caused a contemptuous stir among rural land owners in the county. New land use regulations were invented and what regulations were already in place were increased. The county took comments on the proposed ordinance this year and released a second draft.

Other than some additions that would protect some agricultural practices, many of the restrictions stayed the same. Buffers, for example, have always been one of the primary restrictions for where and how much development could take place on property. Under the current SAO there are three classes of wetlands that need to be protected by buffers ranging from 25 to 100 feet. Should the new CAO be passed into law, those three classes would change to four categories with buffers that range from 50 to 300 feet.

Three classes of streams with fish under the current SAO would be changed to four types of bodies of water with the new CAO that would include certain lakes and ponds. Current buffers for streams range from 25 to 150 feet, but that could be increased to 25 to 165 feet under the CAO.

In the stormwater provisions of the proposed CAO, no landowner could develop more than 35 percent of their property. Of that 35 percent, only 10 percent could be an impervious surface such as a building or cement driveway.

Other regulations affect everything from how far a pile of manure can be placed near a stream to plans to align floodplain regulations with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requirements.

While Reinert admitted there are restrictions to development, he said the county recognized that rural landowners are the best stewards of their own land. Should a landowner want to develop their land, he said, the county would be willing to work with them to make sure they could do it without endangering the habitat.

"We can apply this liberally," Reinert said.

Reinert said landowners should be interested in developmental regulations since there may even be a benefit to them. He is talking with the King County Assessor's Office to see what kind of effect regulations have on property values and said that the regulations are in place to protect the environment many rural residents hold so dear and others are willing to pay for.

Finney, however, doesn't buy into either argument. History has shown that environmental law is applied conservatively, not liberally, she said, and whatever law is on the books will not be broken or even bent.

She also fails to see how restrictions on property would help it appreciate.

"How can doing less with your land increase its value?" she said.

While she may not own property in King County, Finney has been busy telling King County Councilwoman Kathy Lambert's constituents about the CAO. Lambert, who represents Finney and many rural landowners in east King County, said when she was first briefed about the ordinance, she couldn't believe what she was hearing.

"I laughed," she said. "I thought they were joking. They said they weren't and I got very mad."

Finney may have a powerful ally with Lambert, but she is afraid that given the state gubernatorial and presidential elections in 2004 the CAO won't get noticed by many residents when the King County Council starts debating the issue next year. Finney said she will be working to make sure it doesn't fade from the forefront of local issues in coming months.

"That's my job," she said.

Reinert stressed that there is still work to be done on the CAO before it goes before the County Council. He said King County Executive Ron Sims will review the CAO, make any recommendations he feels are necessary and plans to give it to the County Council for discussion and passage sometime in late January or early February.

* Additional information on the Critical Area's Ordinance can be found at http://www.metrokc.gov/ddes/cao/

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