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Is DDES 'sterilizing' rural businesses?
SNOQUALMIE VALLEY - A hearing examiner's decision concerning a seemingly routine code enforcement appeal is being described as the "first shot" in a battle that pits rural businesses against the King County Department of Development of Environmental Services (DDES).
The department was alerted to Bill Bridges' saw sharpening business on 440th Place Southeast near Ernie's Grove in 2001 by a neighbor's noise complaint.
It found that the business, Pacific Northwest Industrial Saws, which sharpens saws for mills in Oregon and Washington including Weyerhaeuser Co.'s mill in Snoqualmie, wasn't allowed under the property's RA-2.5 zoning and it needed to obtain a new building permit. The business employs five people.
Bridges and the property's former owner, Neil Dubey, appealed the DDES code enforcement, saying the business was allowed because the property, which is bordered on three sides by forested land, has historically been home to logging-related operations.
Cecil Littlejohn's North Fork Enterprises-Littlejohn Inc. contract logging business was located at the site from 1962-2001. It was from Littlejohn the Dubey purchased the property in 2000, the same year in which Pacific Northwest Industrial Saws moved to the location.
The following year, Dubey sold the 2.66-acre parcel to Bridges.
In his decision, King County Hearing Examiner Stafford Smith found Pacific Northwest Industrial Saws was a permitted nonconforming use under county regulations because it would have been allowed by the property's previous zoning. But he said it did need a new building permit, as its main building, constructed in 1983, was originally permitted for hay storage, not saw sharpening.
Environmental consultant Paul Carkeek of Eco-Sight, who represented Bridges and Dubey, said DDES's code-enforcement actions follow a trend of the department targeting rural businesses.
"Rural people have a right to live and work in the rural area," he said. Carkeek believes Smith's decision sets a precedent, as land-use policies have forced many rural businesses to close since the adoption of the 1994 county comprehensive plan.
"Rural character" is not just about preserving open spaces, but also rural culture, Carkeek said, and Smith's decision recognizes that.
"If we are going to do anything about rural character, this is where we begin," he said.
Bridges was not available for comment. But Dubey said cases like theirs were turning rural King County into one large bedroom community.
"I'm not very political minded, but by God, we should be able to work here in the Valley," he said.
DDES Code Enforcement Supervisor Elizabeth Deraitus said her department is not targeting rural businesses like Pacific Northwest Industrial Saws. It responded to a complaint and it found a business that appeared to conflict with the property's current zoning, which allows "growing and harvesting forest product" and "forest research."
"We found it has changed over the years and that it was no longer legal as it stood," she said.
"We are not out to try and cut business in the rural area. That has never been one of our goals."
Deraitus said DDES isn't planning an appeal.
In his decision, Smith cited policies introduced by Metropolitan King County Councilman David Irons that had been adopted as comprehensive plan amendments in 2000. The policies state the county's support of rural cottage industries, and direct Executive Ron Sims, through DDES, to review county regulations to see whether they conflict with the policies.
The review was supposed to have been completed by Dec. 31, 2001, but Deraitus said staffing cuts have put the project on hold. Despite the lack of review, Smith used the policies to support his decision.
"Normally the staff interpretation would be entitled to prevail," he wrote. "Generally, nonconforming uses are regarded contrary to current policy and their extinguishment is favored.
"In the [Bridges and Dubey] case, however, the interpretation of the scope of forest industry use needs to take into account the clear intent of the 2000 comprehensive plan amendments to encourage preservation of traditional forestry practices."
Irons said DDES is ignoring the comprehensive plan policies, which is putting rural businesses at risk.
"It seems like what we're doing ... the actual outcome is we're having a sterilization" of the county's rural areas, he said. "Which, to me, is a dramatic overreach of our legislation."
Smith's decision, Irons added, marks the first time in recent years the pendulum has swung the other way and favored a rural business over county regulations.
"It's the first successful shot in this battle," he said.
But many rural businesses or cottage industries do not have a history of similar business practices occurring on the same property, unlike Pacific Northwest Industrial Saws. That's necessary in order for the county to allow a nonconforming use.
Deraitus said if a business can't establish that history, DDES must follow the law.
"What's written in the codes is what we've had to enforce," she said.