JZ Knight's bid to halt development heard by state's Supreme Court - YELM: Her lawyers argue that water guarantees must precede building

The News Tribune

June 5th, 2011

Neighbors often groan about the new housing developments next door.

Typically, that’s all they do – but JZ Knight, 65, is no ordinary neighbor. She’s started an argument that could change the rules of local land-use planning throughout the state, and she’s determined to finish it.

Knight is a wealthy New Age guru, spiritual adviser to stars, channeler (she claims) of a 35,000-year-old entity, world-famous founder of the Ramtha School of Enlightenment. She wields mystic power, some followers say.

There’s no evidence of otherwordly force in her 4-year battle with the City of Yelm – just ordinary, earthbound stuff: money, and the means to hire lawyers sharp enough to navigate the boggy archipelago of state water law.

Knight’s school sits on a green, 80-acre estate just outside the city’s border. She’s trying to stop a set of five housing subdivisions just inside the border and right next door. The nearest would creep within 1,300 feet of her property.

Collectively, the subdivisions would create 568 residential units, an enormous number locally. Yelm’s population was 6,848 as of the 2010 census. The subdivisions would up the city’s housing stock by roughly 20 percent.

Stopping the development is Knight’s goal. Her weapon is water – more specifically, water rights.

She argues that the subdivisions will drain water from sources where she owns senior water rights – a “constitutionally protected property interest,” as her lawyer pointedly explained to the Washington State Supreme Court during oral arguments May 26.

She also argues (with backing from the state Department of Ecology) that Yelm has overpromised water for years, exceeding its capacity. Knight’s lawyers say the city hasn’t proved it can supply water to the subdivisions on its own without taking it from her.

Yelm argues that Knight has no standing to argue, since she hasn’t proved an actual loss.

The city also argues that the arguments from the Ecology Department are overblown, that the city has (or will have) the capacity to meet the water needs of the new developments.

“The attacks on the city’s water system management are absolutely unfounded,” said Richard Settle, the attorney who represented Yelm before the Supreme Court. “We have always said when a final plat comes, we are required to determine water availability.”

Knight’s response: Prove it before you hand out the building permits.

The tussle resonates beyond Yelm and local fuss over growth.

If Knight prevails, the legal precedent could echo across the state, especially in rural communities where water is scarce. Owners of senior water rights could halt development in its tracks.

The specifics of the legal debate revolve around mind-numbing subtleties, such as the exact moment when the city’s permit process has to prove, not just predict, water availability.

During oral arguments May 26, Supreme Court Justice Jim Johnson elbowed past the niceties. He admitted he was exaggerating to make a point.

“What JZ Knight wants is just to accumulate everything and use her standing to prevent any development,” he said.

It wasn’t exactly a question. Keith Moxon, Knight’s attorney, answered anyway. The city had to prove it could supply the water – sooner rather than later, before development plans are finalized.

“Our only argument is they can’t go through that at the building permit stage,” he said. “The reality is homeowners buy … and expect they’re going to get water. We think we’ve prevented a disaster.”

The argument to the state’s high court is the fifth round of a fight that started in 2007.

Knight lost at the local level – a hearing examiner and the Yelm City Council ruled against her. A Thurston County Superior Court judge ruled in her favor in 2008. The state Court of Appeals sided with the city in 2010, setting the stage for the most recent appeal.

In a sense, she’s won one part of the battle. Four of the five subdivision backers have dropped out of the legal debate, either because of economic woes or sheer weariness.

Knight’s trump card comes from the Ecology Department, the state’s water overseer.

Examining the case in 2008, the agency concluded that Yelm has overcommitted its water resources since 2001. The conclusion appears in court records associated with the long-running case.

“Ecology is attempting to be proactive by participating in this matter so as to prevent possible water right violations by the City of Yelm, as well as other water purveyors, by overcommitting water supply,” the agency stated in records.

The department’s brief went on to say that promises and applications to obtain water don’t meet the standard of proof required by state law.

“Public policy supports having the questions related to available water supply answered before developers further invest in improvements and infrastructure,” the agency’s brief concluded.

Justice Charles Johnson hinted at the court’s thinking during the May 26 arguments, with another off-hand comment that didn’t sound like a question.

“It seems sort of self-evident that you would want to lock up the water availability before the financer’s gonna give you a nickel, before you cut a tree down, clear any land or put any infrastructure in,” he said.

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486

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