SEQUIM RESIDENT FIGHTS LAW HE THINKS GOES TOO FAR
Clallam County, WA - 8/15/01 - Some Clallam County residents feel the Critical Areas Code goes much too far in protecting streams, wildlife, and wetland. Dr. John Bennett, who practices in Sequim, is more than willing to call the county commissioners on it.
Critical areas are described as wetlands, fish and wildlife habitat, conservation areas, geologically hazardous areas, frequently flooded areas, and frequently flooded aquifer- recharge areas. A petition to repeal the code was handed into commissioners in July. The petition was signed by 3,700 residents.
The petition reads in part, “We believe the Critical Areas Code is contrary to wise use environmental practices, that it creates dangerous high densities on our lands, and artificially restricts the best use of the land.”
On July 24, Clallam County commissioners voted 2-1 to seeking a declaratory judgment to see if the public petition could overrule the county charter.
Commissioner Steve Tharinger, D-Dungeness explained the reasons for having a ruling on the Critical Areas Code petition as being advised by legal counsel there were two state Supreme Court cases similar to this. Tharinger said the Supreme Court made it pretty clear what the petition is.
“It is not legal for the local charter petition process to throw out state law,” Tharinger said. The court has already ruled in the Snohomish and Whatcom County cases,” he said.
The commissioners voted to send the petition first to court for review of the legal standing rather than send it to a public hearing and a public vote, then ruling on the legal standing.
The move drew the ire of two dozen local citizens, including Bennett who owns a home in the county.
“My property,” Bennett said, includes wetland. I like it. It is full of life. But, I don’t want to feel that I am breaking the law for mowing the lawn too close to my pond. Even if no one catches me. I’m an honest citizen. The Critical Areas Code is an infringement on my rights to use my property,” he said.
“When I met with the commissioners two weeks ago, I was perturbed by the manner with which the commissioners behaved. The charter reads that the petition has to be brought up at a regular meeting.” Bennett believes the commissioners presented the petition at a work session and possibly an executive session.
According to the state’s Open Meetings Act the commissioners can use an executive session, “to discuss with legal counsel representing the agency litigation or potential litigation for which the agency, the governing body, or a member acting in an official capacity is, or likely to become a party, when public knowledge regarding the situation is likely to result in an adverse legal or financial consequence to the agency.” However, opponents claim there was no specific litigation facing the commissioners at the time the executive session was initiated.
Commissioner Mike Doherty, D-Port Angeles, refused to give any reasoning behind the executive session. Clallam County commissioner’s legal counsel, Chris Melly urged the commissioners to hold the closed-door meeting so they could “discuss options” for dealing with the petition to put the Critical Areas Code on the ballot. One of the prefaces to the closed meeting was commissioners would outline those options once they returned to regular sessions. They did not.
Bennett said he did not ask what they covered in the executive session, but he suspects they discussed the petition and violated the Open Meetings Act.
NO PUBLIC HEARING
At the July 24 meeting, the commissioners refused to schedule a public hearing regarding the petition.
Commissioner Mike Chapman R-Port Angeles, asked for a public hearing on the subject not more than 30 days from when the petition was presented to the county.
The motion died after it was not seconded.
Bob Forde, a Critical Areas Code opponent, who lives in Sequim, asked the
commissioners to let the matter be settled by the people.
“I was told by a county employee that it was not necessary to have the ordinance on the petition,” Forde said. “If this issue dies then let it die at the polls. Do not prevent this from coming to the public,” he said.
Kip McKeever also opposed the Critical Areas Code. He owns a 25- acre parcel in the county and said the Critical Areas Code could be interpreted to affect any property owner. “Property use should be the right of the people to decide, not two commissioners,” McKeever said. He said commissioner Chapman by asking for a public hearing, “was responding to the laws of this county, no more no less,”
Tharinger said he would be happy to deal with the petition in a public hearing setting after the issue of legality is completed.
“This is not a question of public process,” Tharinger said. “There’s been ten years of public process on this. I just question that it (the petition) is legal. I’m just worried we’re ...giving the people a false hope that the petition is legal,” Tharinger said.
“It is bad policy going to a public hearing and a public vote,” said Tharinger, “without getting the court’s opinion.”
Doherty was unavailable for comment. He is away until August, 27.
FUTURE ACTION AGAINST COMMISSIONERS
“I’m most upset that they decided not to hold a public meeting (regarding the petition),” Bennett said. “If they don’t, I will file to have at least one (Tharinger) commissioner thrown out.”
Tharinger said, “If folks think that is a decision that warrants a recall , that is their opinion. I try not to make my decisions in a political way.”
“It is tough to balance leadership with what all the different factions want you to do," said Tharinger. “This decision was pretty clear.”
McKeever recently dropped out of the election for Charter Review Board position due to family matters. Bennett, however, is running. Charter Review Board Members examine, review and consider possible changes to the county charter.
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