Property measure likely on ballot - Proponents deliver tractor load of voter signatures
Friday, July 7, 2006
By JENNIFER LANGSTON AND CHRIS MCGANN
(Editor's Note: This story has been altered. Washington Farm Bureau President Steve Appel described Initiative 993 as an effort to restore balance between government land-use regulations and landowners' property rights. The original version of this story misattributed the statement.)
Property rights advocates turned in what appear to be more than enough signatures to place an initiative on November's ballot that opponents contend would gut the state's environmental protections and lead to chaos.
Initiative 933 would compel governments to either pay people who have been financially hamstrung by land use or environmental regulations -- which is unlikely to happen -- or allow them to use or build on the property as they wish.
"It's about restoring balance between the need of government to regulate land use and the right of citizens to own and use their property," said Steve Appel, president of the Washington Farm Bureau, which is spearheading the Property Fairness Initiative. "For many people, it's about protecting the American Dream."
If the government believes it's in the public interest to protect certain areas or prohibit some uses of land, the public should pay for it, Boyer said.
But opponents argue there's little precedent for compensating people simply to follow rules that benefit society. The initiative could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars and create a free-for-all in which landowners could build virtually whatever they want next to powerless neighbors, they argue.
"I think it's hard for the average person to comprehend how big a deal it could be," said Barbara Seitle, president of the League of Women Voters, which opposes I-933. "It could have a tremendous impact."
In Oregon, a similar measure passed in 2004 has spawned a state Supreme Court case, individual lawsuits and nearly 2,700 claims against the government, which some estimate will cost $350 million a year simply to process.
More than one-third of the waivers, which cover 150,000 acres, are to build subdivisions on farmland, pear orchards, vineyards and forested timberlands, according to an analysis by Portland State University.
Washington's initiative is likely to become one of the most contentious ballot fights this fall, with environmental groups, labor unions, tribes, urban planners and even some farmers squaring off against the Washington Farm Bureau.
Nearly half the pro-933 cash contributions have come from Americans for Limited Government, a Chicago organization founded by New York landlord Howard Rich, who also advocates for term limits and conservative issues. The group, which has contributed $200,000, is bankrolling ballot measures in 12 states.
Local supporters, who used a John Deere tractor to deliver a load of petitions with 315,000 signatures to the state Capitol Thursday, contend that the initiative applies only to regulations passed in the past decade.
Farm Bureau President Steve Appel said that includes a 450-foot wetland buffer being proposed in Jefferson County and court-ordered regulations in Ferry County protecting caribou, which have never been seen there.
The initiative also would allow landowners to seek waivers from rules prohibiting logging, land clearing or maintaining infrastructure on their property.
When Frankie Sutton bought his King County home 20 years ago, there were no restrictions on where he could build. It's since been incorporated into the city of Covington, which imposed development-free buffers around wetlands and streams.
This year, the former Boeing Co. engineer was denied permission to build a small shed for his retirement hobbies: woodworking and model railroads. He's now spending $1,500 to try to satisfy the wetlands regulations.
"I think they've gone head over heels and stepped over a lot of people in a very heavy-handed way," said Sutton, who supports I-933. "This is an after-the-fact thing; they don't consider the taxpayer they're affecting."
But initiative opponents say I-933 is so vague and poorly worded that enterprising landowners could seek waivers allowing them to do almost anything on their property.
The state chapter of the American Planning Association argues that property owners could argue their economic interests are damaged by something as basic as height limits.
That's a big issue in some Seattle neighborhoods where residents have fought to rein in tall buildings that they believe are out of scale with the community.
It also could create turmoil in the residential real estate market because home buyers would have little assurance about what kind of development could pop up next to them, opponents say.
Even some farmers such as Steve Sakuma, a berry grower in Skagit County, are opposing the measure, arguing that they won't be able to grow crops if neighbors are allowed to sell out to Wal-Marts or huge subdivisions.
"We have watched for years and years, and if there's a loophole to be found, people will find it, and people with money will find the biggest ones," he said. "We're not in a position to operate in an unstable environment, and if you start talking about a bidding war, we're not going to win."
The possibility of gutting shoreline protections, salmon-recovery measures and logging prohibitions passed in at least the past 10 years has fueled opposition from environmental groups.
"All of the things that make Washington Washington will be at risk," said Len Barson, deputy director for external affairs at the Nature Conservancy, which has never opposed an initiative in this state. "The way this is worded, the door could be open to a vast array of challenges."
But the Farm Bureau's Boyer said I-933's scope is far narrower than opponents are claiming. Because most counties already had zoning laws in place in 1996, landowners couldn't seek waivers from those basic rules.
"I don't want to get into a discussion of whether courts will interpret this or interpret that, because obviously our opposition was criticizing the initiative ... before it was even written," he said.
"This is a lot of chaff they're tossing up in the air to confuse the issue, and the issue is: Should property owners be treated fairly by government when it regulates land use?"