'Critical areas ordinance' provokes bitter 'rural vs. urban' dispute
Tuesday, November 16, 2004
By JENNIFER LANGSTON
SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER REPORTER
HOBART -- At this century-old post office south of Issaquah, Volvo station wagons now park next to pickup trucks with bumper stickers advertising cowboydate.com.
In a place that championed a movement to form a breakaway Cedar County a decade ago, new rules requiring rural landowners to leave up to two-thirds of their property untouched have uncorked a bitter well of frustration.
||Mike Urban / P-I
||Rodney McFarland, president of the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights, details the group's next possible steps in its fight against the county land ordinance at a meeting in Issaquah.
The regulations known as King County's "critical areas ordinance" have again galvanized rural residents who've lost battles over what they view as extreme micromanagement by urban politicians.
But this time, landowners objecting to stream buffers and clearing limits have included Microsoft workers, retired architects, formerly apolitical grandmothers, teachers, Democrats and people who give money to the Sierra Club.
"There's a lot more people affected," said Warren Iverson, who was involved in efforts to secede from King County that were struck down by the state Supreme Court. "Back then, it was a property rights versus environmentalist thing. What it's come down to now is urban versus rural."
A citizens property rights group is hoping to channel the anger vented in dozens of public meetings into a popular referendum on three ordinances passed last month by the King County Council.
The Pacific Legal Foundation, a national non-profit group that defends property rights, also plans to file suit in coming weeks.
But supporters of regulations to curb flooding and protect the county's most ecologically fragile areas from development likely will invoke previous court rulings saying state-mandated land-use decisions can't be repealed by a popular vote.
Even those mobilizing to collect enough signatures before Jan. 1, 2005, to force a referendum acknowledge it's unclear whether a majority of unincorporated residents would vote to overturn the rules.
||Mike Urban / P-I
||Karl Lechner of Stillwater, seen with wife, Diane, questions why stricter land-use regulations are necessary. The couple own 60 acres of land. Karl Lechner already has tangled with King County over building a garage.
King County Executive Ron Sims, an ardent supporter of the stronger protections, said rural land-use decisions have always been contentious because communities themselves are divided.
This time, a new provision requiring people who haven't already cleared their land to leave between 50 percent and 65 percent of their property in a natural state has generated particular hostility. They ask how city dwellers would feel if the county forced them to lock the doors to two out of three bedrooms and never touch them again.
A decade ago, Sims countered, there was even more anger directed at the county from people demanding to put the brakes on development.
"People were losing their quality of life, and they were complaining about urbanization. The slow growth and no-growth movements were incredibly ferocious," he said. "Now we're hearing from people who want to develop their land."
Wendy Walsh, a Woodinville-area landowner who supports the new regulations, said she thinks many rural people don't understand the potential benefits.
In her neighborhood, where residents are concerned about the health of Bear Creek, residents advocated years ago to impose protections that now will apply to the whole county.
The retired nurse left her property covered in trees because she believed it was the right thing to do, but the tax breaks she's gotten have allowed her to remain on her 60 acres as property values skyrocketed.
||Mike Urban / P-I
||Roy Ruffino of Lacey reads the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights newsletter featuring a reworked photo depicting King County Executive Ron Sims as "King Sims" with the headline "I'm Going To Take Your Land" on the cover. Ruffino was at the Issaquah Citizens Alliance meeting held early this month.
"The reason why this worked in Bear Creek was because we crafted this ourselves. It came from us," Walsh said. "I think the disconnect is the problem -- in many places there just hasn't been a bridge built between the urban areas and the rural areas."
Democratic King County Council members who approved the latest rules after months of debate point to dozens of compromises that have made the regulations more landowner-friendly.
The ordinances, which used new scientific studies to update regulations written nearly 15 years ago, generally widen no-development buffers around streams, wetlands, shorelines and other sensitive areas.
The rules in some respects are less stringent than ones that passed unanimously in Pierce County with little controversy. In Snohomish County, officials have already warned they'll miss a state deadline to have the rules updated by Dec. 1.
In King County, council members dropped a proposal that would have limited the footprint of non-absorbent surfaces, such as roofs and driveways, to 10 percent of a property. They're expanding programs that reward people who voluntarily preserve forests with property tax breaks and have pledged to simplify the permit process for people building a single-family home.
"Once we got to the end, it seemed like a lot of the people who were still objecting were the people who I think on philosophical grounds object to almost any kind of government regulation," said Harry Reinert, special projects manager for King County's Planning Department.
Stephanie Lorenz, a 35-year-old real estate agent who lives east of Renton, said that's not the case. She's OK with zoning rules that protected rural areas from runaway growth and strip malls.
The fourth-generation farm girl still has a garden and makes raspberry jam. She resents being told how to take care of her property by politicians who are only accountable to urban voters.
"It's a tough pill to swallow when you're looking at somebody trying to tell me what to do who hangs out at Starbucks every day and just talks about doing something for the environment," she said.
Jan Smith endured a three-hour commute to downtown Seattle from her 15-acre horse property in Hobart and just got to the point where she could enjoy it.
The retiree compares the new rules to freezing 65 percent of someone's savings account.
"There's a lot of sadness with this. It's very emotional for me," Smith said. " 'Robbed' isn't quite the right word, but I feel like I've lost something."
Critics say that unlike previous wars over rural zoning, the critical areas rules have affected a wider variety of people in more personal ways.
One of the few victories Republicans on the King County Council won was to kill an anti-pollution measure preventing people from washing cars on driveways and other non-absorbent surfaces.
Staci Sirois, a 25-year-old veterinary assistant who bought her first home on 3 acres last May, worries that the new rules will thwart her dream plans. She and her husband, who works at Microsoft, want to build a riding arena and barn, and start a show horse-breeding business.
If she's prevented from clearing trees and brush on half her property, she doesn't see how that will be possible.
King County Council Chairman Larry Phillips, a Seattle Democrat and veteran of previous bruising growth battles, said the outcry over regulations that people now argue have successfully protected rural areas from sprawl was just as loud.
"It seems like deja vu," Phillips said. "I was here for all the testimony about the world coming to an end, and I'll never be able to do anything with my property and over the course of 10 or 20 years none of that happened."
In a crowded back room at Issaquah's International House of Pancakes last week, dozens of irate landowners begged to differ.
About 60 people attending a board meeting of the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights voted unanimously to start gathering the estimated 12,000 signatures it would take to put a referendum on the ballot.
"I don't want to mislead anyone," said Rodney McFarland, president of the alliance that argues the ordinances are an unconstitutional taking of property without compensation. "There's no magic road to victory. Contrary to the thought that the courts will make this go away because it's un-American, it's an uphill battle."
That didn't stop people from stuffing dollar bills into the empty cracker baskets being passed around.
Karl Lechner, a mild-mannered refrigeration expert who bought his 60 acres north of Carnation straight out of high school, was among those who feel obligated to keep fighting.
After enduring a long legal battle with the county over building a garage, he questions why stricter regulations are necessary in places that already have the county's best fish and wildlife habitat.
"There have been people who have been poor stewards of the Earth, and the county has come in and said you've got to clean that up and rightfully so," he said. "But to slap something like this on all people just doesn't make sense."
For details on the King County critical areas ordinances, visit www.metrokc.gov/mkcc/cao/index.htm
For information about the referendum effort, visit www.proprights.org
Help for property owners