CAO protects rural property owners, drinking water and environment

It is definitely time to take a closer look at King County's new Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO). We need to look beyond the controversy and rhetoric and examine who and what it protects, and why.

If you think that we live in a dog-eat-dog world and that everyone should be able to do anything they want on their property - no matter what - then you can probably afford to skip a thoughtful review of the CAO. But if you think that we live in communities where we have a responsibility to be fair to our neighbors, and that it might make sense for communities to establish rules that protect things like drinking water, public health and our rural quality of life, then you owe it to yourself to take a closer look at the CAO. And if you are concerned about taxes and property values then you really need to take a closer look, because all of the available evidence indicates that over time the new rules should protect property values and reduce taxes.

The CAO has as three of its most important goals to: (1) Protect water supplies; (2) Protect property owners from flooding, landslides and other hazards; and (3) Keep our rural areas rural. Each of these is very important. Continuing development is threatening the ground water supplies many depend on for drinking water and irrigation (30 percent of King County residents rely on wells for their drinking water). Rural residents in King County have seen runoff from nearby clear cuts damage their access roads and flood their home sites. Farmers in the Snoqualmie and other valleys continue to struggle with problems created by increased runoff as the hills above them are developed.

Although these are important goals, the rules that aim to achieve them must be balanced against people's rights to use their land. And they must be flexible enough to accommodate individual needs and special circumstances.

The good news is that the CAO is flexible and has been improved in response to public comment to accommodate rural lifestyles and needs. Maintaining rural areas, farms and forests also means maintaining people's ability to use their land. The critical areas provisions include flexible provisions to ensure that everyone can build on their land. They do not change the zoning of properties or the number of houses people are allowed to build. In fact, the update increased the land that can be used to calculate how many homes are allowed.

The new CAO also makes life simpler for farmers and horse owners in important ways. With an approved farm plan, a county permit is no longer required to clean existing agricultural ditches. This will make life simpler for farmers, and eliminates a frustrating regulation. The standard buffers do not apply to existing farms and horse operations. Permit costs for large agricultural buildings, such as stables and barns, have been lowered. The CAO also gives rural residents, farmers and foresters the option of creating a customized plan for their land as an alternative to the standard regulations. This plan can be customized to the land owner's goals and the conditions on the ground while meeting the goals of protecting the environment and the neighbors. For farmers and horse owners, the farm plans are free and approved by the land owner and the King Conservation District, a state agency.

The CAO includes flexible provisions that apply within the urban growth area, too. Like in the rural area, the new update allows all of a lot to be used in calculating the number of homes that can be built. Flexible lot standards allow builders to achieve the same number of homes with the new standards as before.

Undoubtedly, the most controversial provisions of the new CAO are the clearing allowances for rural areas. The CAO does limit people's ability to permanently clear cut their lots. The simple truth is that trees and ground cover collect tremendous amounts of water - recharging wells and aquifers, filtering out pollutants and preventing floods and landslides. We have learned the hard way that when we permanently cut down too many trees, it creates serious health and safety problems.

But once again, the new rules are flexible. They are designed to ensure that people can harvest timber, cut fire wood, keep horses, raise crops, clear brush to prevent fires, remove blackberries and weeds and cut down trees that are hazards to homes and buildings. The clearing allowances were increased for smaller lots to ensure that people can raise horses. Small lots are not required to count clearing for utilities, access roads or septic systems toward their 50-percent clearing allowance. Existing lots that have legally cleared more than 35 percent can keep the existing cleared area; there is no requirement to replant it. The clearing allowances do not affect people's ability to build homes on their rural properties.

The CAO is good for our pocketbooks as well. The evidence is very clear, both in terms of property values and taxes. In the Bear Creek area near Redmond, where clearing allowances have been in place for a decade, property values have increased significantly. Additionally, landowners who participate in the county's rural stewardship program are entitled to tax breaks for land left in native vegetation.

But the real tax savings are in the longer run. Wetlands and forests clean water, recharge aquifers and prevent floods and landslides much more cheaply and effectively than treatment plants and storm water detention ponds. If we do not protect our wetlands and forests, we will spend untold millions of our tax dollars on infrastructure that attempts - often unsuccessfully - to do the same job. You can see this in the costly storm drainage improvements that are built in the urban growth area as it develops. These systems are designed to reduce some of the damage that would otherwise be done to downstream property owners.

And if we build large scale water, sewer and storm water facilities in the rural area, it will be followed by large scale new development soon thereafter. Without adequate protections badly planned growth will destroy our rural areas, farms and forests. Forever.

The common sense benefits of CAO protections are so important that the county is legally required to adopt them. The state Legislature directed cities and counties to do this work to keep our water clean and to ensure we respond to new scientific information about threats to public health and the environment.

In closing, it's important to make sure that all the controversy over the new CAO doesn't cause us to lose sight of the shared values that are its foundation. As a community we value things like clean water, public health and safety and our rural quality of life, and we have a responsibility to protect them. The CAO uses flexible tools that have already worked successfully in parts of King County for over 10 years to provide those protections - tools that have protected property values and helped avoid tax increases as well.

The bottom line is that there's a reason it's called the Critical Areas Ordinance: it protects things that are critically important to our well-being. We will all be better off because of it.

Tim Trohimovich is the director of planning for 1000 Friends of Washington.

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