Many deep and divisive remain in CAO plan

Many of you are already aware that King County's Growth Management Committee voted along party lines to move a much derided Critical Areas Ordinance out of committee and onto the agenda for the full County Council. In so doing, this committee ran roughshod over the minority vote of the rural council members in their bid to impose the most one-sided piece of environmental legislation ever enacted on rural landowners.

No one argues that we need to protect our wildlife, lakes, streams, rivers and wetlands and prevent degradation of other critical areas including steep slope and landslide hazard areas. But why should rural landowners shoulder the entire responsibility?

The entire process with regard to the Growth Management Plan, CAO, Clearing and Grading and Stormwater ordinances has focused almost exclusively on the private rural property owner. Neither the executive's version of the ordinances, or the version recently passed by the council's Growth Management and Unincorporated Areas Committee on Sept. 28, 2004, address protecting the environment in urban areas.

The so called 65/35/10 rule that seeks to remove the rights of a rural landowner to alter, cultivate or landscape more than 35 percent of their property is intended to improve water quality throughout the drainage basins of our major river systems. Those of us who live in the rural area are fully cognizant of the health of these basins where we live. In fact, King County's Draft Ordinance CAO map depicts basin conditions of the far western portions of King County as low. These are the urban areas of King County. The basin conditions of the eastern portions of King County are high. These are generally rural areas. If the intent of the ordinances is to protect the environment, preserve healthy habitat and restore degraded habitat, restrictions should be strengthened in the urban environment where the condition of the habitat is low. Land-use regulations should be maintained constant, or based on bonafide scientific studies, possibly reduced in the rural area where the condition of habitat is high. King County already has some of the strictest ordinances in the United States with regard to environmental concerns. Requiring rural landowners who already responsibly manage their 15 percent of the county area to act as the "protector" or filter for areas that are already degraded is not only mathematically and physically impossible, but also grossly unfair.

On Oct. 18, the King County Council will meet as judge and jury to decide the fate of this one-sided ordinance. What they need to know is that they are judging the wrong defendant. Department of Ecology data clearly shows that it is not the rural landowners who own less than 15 percent of the land in King County who degrade water quality. The most frequent violators are sewage and water treatment plants that serve cities, and industrial facilities that are for the most part located in urban areas.

King County insists that it has met the burden of proof through the application of "best available science." However, there is overwhelming evidence that best available science was developed to fit the rules developed by DDES that are primarily for application in the rural area. This is contrary to acceptable scientific practice, which uses science to identify the problem, define alternative solutions and then to defensibly define practical solutions.

For example, in 1990 coal mine subsidence was determined to present a hazard to surface development in several areas of King County. A scientific evaluation was made of the risks associated with abandoned coal mines and public meetings were held to gain input from the local scientific community. A scientific consensus was developed with regard to potential impacts, what should be done to evaluate impacts and what restrictions should be imposed on development. After numerous meetings an ordinance was written, subjected to additional public and scientific input and discussion, and then, and only then, enacted by the council as regulatory code. This process has not been followed by KCDDES in developing the current regulations.

What can you do? Our rural council members are putting up a great fight, but they are clearly outnumbered both in committee and on the larger body of the full council. Call and write the other council members and ask them to make an impartial, nonpartisan review of what is proposed and not to unfairly punish or burden their minority constituency. Ask them to objectively evaluate the evidence. Ask them to challenge the so-called best available science that King County claims buttresses its case but has never been truly subject to peer review or public questioning. Ask them not to rush to judgment on the rural landowner and ask them to abandon partisan politics when deciding the fate of their minority constituency.


Dr. Chris Breeds holds a doctorate in engineering and is a registered professional engineer with an extensive background in research and scientific study. He is a member of the National Academy of Science and is currently being considered for appointment to a national environmental committee charged with evaluating the consequences of coal combustion waste disposal.

Breeds has been involved with the implementation of KCDDES regulations for over a decade and was the primary author of the King County Coal Mine Hazards Ordinance. He is the owner of SubTerra, Inc., a North Bend-based engineering and geological consulting company that is involved with permitting projects in King County and throughout Washington State. Breeds and his staff have extensive experience applying King County's current environmental regulations to projects and are committed to designing and managing effective environmental compliance.

Colleen Johnson is a part-time staff member performing environmental research at SubTerra Inc. and a former council member in the city of Snoqualmie. She has been actively engaged in land-use planning and currently serves as the head of the planning commission for Snoqualmie. She is a lifelong resident of the Snoqualmie Valley dedicated to public service, balanced and responsible development and the protection of our environment and natural resources.

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