Opinion

What has King County forgotten about rural character?

King County is scratching a hole in its head, and the pocketbooks of some rural families, trying to figure out what they're doing in the rural area and what's worth preserving for future generations. It's not like no one has asked them recently, and they didn't have a swift reply: rural character, idiot!

Since the arrival of immigrants into the Snoqualmie Valley, a variety of crafts, trades and vocations sprang up, which in relatively recent times, became of interest to King County government. For over a decade the Department of Development & Environmental Services (DDES) has administered progressively strict regulatory controls over rural home grown livelihoods and lifestyles.

The fact is, rural character relies on nonresidential uses, trades and businesses:

Rural land has been used in this manner historically. You should be able to support your family and your employees' families on the rural land you own, as your father did. Coming up in July and August, King County will be in the rural area asking rural residents: what is that rural thing you characters do?

Even with the advent of recent land use zoning under the state's Growth Management Act (GMA), "home grown" rural businesses have been surrounded by residential and urban-style commercial developments. The outcome should have been: zoning the right thing in the right place and follow-through on what has been promised by law: King County was to foster land use patterns that preserve the local vision of rural character by: enhancing traditional rural lifestyles; encouraging rural-based economies and the prosperity of rural residents; cultivating opportunities for small-scale, rural-based employment and self-employment; and permitting the operation of rural-based forestry, agricultural, cottage industries, recreational and tourist businesses that are consistent with existing and planned land use patterns and can be sustained at rural service levels.

Mischief is about, and the weapon of choice for many newcomers and old-timers, too, is code enforcement.

I recall an issue several years ago: new residents began to settle in the Snoqualmie Valley agricultural production district near Carnation and found the springtime manure application to farm land offensive. They called the county complaining: "my children are getting sick at the bus stop. I want that God-awful smell stopped. It's not healthy and it's not what we moved out here for!"

Somehow King County has convinced itself, and others, rural zoning (RA) means only residential uses are allowed in the zone. However, King County code provides boilerplate language that was to insure a genuine rural concept.

This guidance outlines a zoning scheme based on contemplating elements of rural character, and hence supports independent businesses in the rural area. The focus of key GMA and King County planning documents are aimed at preserving a rural economy, including "cottage industries." That fact is clearly iterated in the 1992 King County County-wide Planning Policies developed to guide King County and its cities' comprehensive plans under GMA. Framework policy FW-9 provided the guidance for "rural" nonresidential uses, and small scale trades and businesses.

The questions today are, again:

* Do these uses and their associated structures limit or impair rural character, and/or preclude any residential use permitted by the underlying zoning (RA)?

* Are these uses and associated structures inextricably linked to rural lifestyles and therefore important to the general welfare of many, if not all, of the rural population, and hence all of King County?

The answer is no and yes, respectively, and King County pulled a fast one on GMA, rural character and the folks living on and working from rural land when it was decided to create a new code under GMA. In 1993, King County adopted code language referencing "Home occupation(s)" with standards that were originally meant for the "Urban" and "Suburban" areas with typically higher densities and exclusively zoned residential. Home occupation(s) are permitted within rural areas, however the standards enforced by the county are easily exceeded by a neighborhood lemonade stand.

Therefore, if your red rooster crows too early on Sunday morning, your neighbor up the road might turn you in for parking your equipment and storing the materials used on the job on your RA zoned property. Despite the guidance of the policies above, DDES and other county departments would like to keep it that way.

By administrative proxy we are witnessing the conversion of our rural areas into suburban bedroom communities. In other words, King County has been making rural character up, as they like, as they go.

The result is the destruction of rural character and suffering families. However, with a lot of work a new policy was adopted into the King County Comprehensive Plan identified as R-106. The county's action regarding R-106 was taken under GMA authority and required a documented public process. Nonetheless, DDES failed to act on King County Comprehensive Plan Policy R-106 as twice directed (2000 and 2004).

On March 3, 2006, DDES introduced for direct council action new, and perhaps more restrictive, proposals to amend KCC 21A.30.080 & 090 to read: "No more than one nonresident who comes to the site of the home occupation shall be employed by the home occupation or occupation(s)," or in the occasion of a home industry: "No more than 4 non-residents who come to the site of the home industry are employed in the home industry."

Consequently King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert countered DDES' proposals by offering additional amendments meant for inclusion in the Land Use Code in section KCC 21A.030 better preserving "rural character" under GMA, Policy R-106, and other King County planning documents.

As a result, and from then on, DDES has refused to comment on the substance of Lambert's submittal, DDES has wanted Lambert to withdraw her amendment and to commence another public outreach, which in effect may actually be an agency revaluation of the wisdom of R-106. At some point DDES may, or may not, review and recommend code changes as directed and previously set forth in Policy R-106. Also, King County now plans to outlaw keeping "heavy" equipment on all but the largest properties zoned rural.

Tampering with legislative directives and procedures is a form of political activism and an extraordinary agency approach that should be avoided as it raises questions regarding trust and/or ethical administration of adopted policy. If the tampering DDES did wasn't enough, here comes the King County Office of Business Relations & Economic Development (BRED). BRED wants to tinker with adopted policy and rural character, too. For the last few months BRED has sponsored meetings sometimes advertised as: "Home-Based Business Group," or "Home Occupation Regulations Meetings," or "Meeting Home Based Business Regulations, Rural Economic Strategies". It appears BRED's effort here was to soften up some of the unincorporated area councils, who offered strong opposition to the Rural Economic Strategies Report determined to be a full-scale gentrification of rural area economics, and hence rural character itself.

The rural area is awkward by design; sanitizing it will destroy it.

It's about protecting the rural minority from an indifferent elected urban majority. It is about the power of the city and King County's fixed disadvantages for Rural folks. We have laws that deal with junkyards and abandoned vehicles, and they should work. We should be cautious of the unintended consequences of crafting a law that works more as a prohibition of rural character and/or independent lifestyle choices than it does an economic rural tonic.

I hope all of you who work on, or from your rural property will get involved. Call King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert at, (206) 296-1003 and/or BRED, Julia Larson, coordinator, King County Rural Economic Strategies at (206) 296-1062. Also, I would be happy to talk with you.

Paul P. Carkee

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