Strict land use rules approved by Council

SEATTLE - Rural property owners joined Republicans from the Metropolitan King County Council earlier this week to give the Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) one last thrashing before it was passed at the council's Oct. 25 meeting.

SEATTLE – Rural property owners joined Republicans from the Metropolitan King County Council earlier this week to give the Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO) one last thrashing before it was passed at the council’s Oct. 25 meeting.

The CAO, along with other ordinances regarding land use near streams and land clearing, is a series of additional development regulations that will affect landowners in unincorporated King County. The regulations cover many aspects of development, from building near salmon habitat to how much land one can clear of native vegetation.

Supporters of the CAO say the regulations are necessary in order to keep up with the state’s Growth Management Act and to curtail sprawl in the rural areas. Those who oppose the CAO say it is unnecessary and amounts to a land grab at the expense of rural landowners.

Before the County Council met, Republicans on the council held a press conference to state again how emphatically they opposed the ordinance. Councilman Dave Irons, vice chair of the county’s Growth Management and Unincorporated Areas Committee (GMUAC), said the CAO is not needed and goes after the wrong people. He quoted a report issued last week by King County Executive Ron Sims that stated the he county’s salmon population is threatened more by urban polluters than rural polluters, and that the health of wildlife in the rural area is actually improving.

“This is legislation hunting for a problem,” Irons said.

Landowners from King County on hand at the conference agreed that the CAO is too much for any landowner to handle, regardless of their politics.

“I am a lifelong Democrat and an environmentalist,” said Doug Napchis, a rural landowner who spoke at the press conference. “And yet I sit with a group of people [council Republicans] that understand what is wrong with this legislation.”

Although the council debated a CAO that was revised and not as stringent as its original draft, opponents of the legislation said it was still too much. Councilwoman Kathy Lambert likened the changes to giving a parent an option of whether they wanted one of their three children killed, one spit on and the other maimed after the parent was first told that all three children had to be killed.

“It’s better, but it is still not acceptable,” Lambert said.

Lambert said the CAO represents a clear divide between urban land management and rural land ownership. She said the mostly urban council had no right telling the rural areas how to use their land and added she will be watching legislation in Olympia that could renew interest in Cedar County (the name given to an effort that would have the eastern section of King County break off and form its own county).

Afterward, staff from King County Executive Ron Sims’ office countered claims that the CAO was overbearing or overreaching. Stephanie Warden, director of King County’s Department of Development and Environmental Services, said any new law governing land use will be opposed and that similar feelings of discontent were expressed toward the CAO’s predecessor, the Sensitive Areas Ordinance, in the 1990s.

Despite what opponents of the CAO said, Warden claimed the regulations are based on good science and still allowed landowners to develop their land.

“We believe these ordinances are defensible. They are backed up by solid research, solid science,” she said. “We believe we have a defensible package before the council today.”

Although the CAO passed, opponents of the new regulations said they would not stop contesting the legislation. Councilman Rob McKenna doubted the constitutionally of the new regulations, saying they were “draconian” and the worst in the state if not the nation. His fellow Republicans estimated a barrage of law suits waiting to be filed against the county by angry landowners.

“This is a full-employment program for every land-use attorney in the Puget Sound region,” Irons said.

Warden said the county is prepared to fight the legal battle for the CAO, but could not estimate how much it would cost to do so.

There are many exceptions to the CAO that allow landowners to bend or break some of the regulations in some situations. Supporters of the CAO have touted a rural stewardship plan that would allow certain “rural” uses in sensitive areas and provide incentives for landowners who actively pursue conservation.

“The Critical Areas amendments and the companion legislation introduced today will make it easier to get tax incentives for responsible stewardship of the land, provide free assistance to property owners, create an efficient ‘one-stop shop’ with a consolidated fixed fee review for siting a new house hear a critical area and provide an appeal to the council for reasonable use exceptions,” said Councilman Dow Constantine, chair of the GMUAC, in a press release. “The majority on this council is determined to make sure this legislation is implemented in a way that works for people and the environment.”

Councilman Steve Hammond, who repeated several times he was the only council member who actually resided in the county’s unincorporated area, said the CAO is being pushed by urban-based environmental groups or by people who have already developed their land.

“People who own land in the rural areas are saying don’t do this,” he said.