Board wants Stevens County tax money held - Panel cites failure to comply with Growth Management Act

John Craig
Spokesman-Review Staff writer

December 4, 2003

Stevens County, WA - A state board wants Gov. Gary Locke to cut off tax money for Stevens County to force compliance with the Growth Management Act.

The three-member Eastern Washington Growth Management Hearings Board says county commissioners have failed for two years to adopt an adequate "critical areas ordinance" to protect wetlands and other sensitive land.

The county actually has two such ordinances on the books, but the hearings board says neither one is good enough.

For the third time in two years, on Nov. 14, the hearings board found Stevens County out of compliance with the Growth Management Act. The board gave the county 90 days to remedy the problem, but followed up on Nov. 17 with a letter asking Locke to impose economic sanctions.

County commissioners and Locke received the letter Monday.

Under state law, Locke could economically cripple the county -- which already is making deep cuts to balance its budget -- by cutting off all state-shared revenue.

"We are evaluating the case here in the office, and hope to make a decision in the near future," said Michael Marchand, deputy communications director for the governor.

Marchand said it was too soon to say how Locke might approach the issue.

In 1996, after Chelan County commissioners filed lawsuits alleging the Growth Management Act was unconstitutional, then-Gov. Mike Lowry withheld $140,000 a month in state road money from the county. The money was released with interest -- $866,000 in all -- in early 1997 when two newly elected commissioners changed the county's course.

Later in 1997, with Locke as governor, the growth board took a similar action against Ferry County. Locke declined to consider sanctions as long as he saw hope for a settlement, and Ferry County commissioners eventually papered over their differences with the growth board.

Stevens County Commissioner Merrill Ott said commissioners will send their own letter to Locke in hopes of convincing him the growth board is being unreasonable.

"We absolutely want to comply," Ott said. "We want to get it done as quickly as possible."

Failure to resolve the issue is hurting the county's economy by preventing development, Ott said. A Growth Management Act-related moratorium is preventing land from being divided into parcels smaller than 20 acres.

But Ott said commissioners are caught "between the devil and the deep blue sea." Most of their constituents oppose restrictions on property rights, he said.

He thinks commissioners have found a suitable compromise in a provision that would allow property owners to choose between standard setbacks from lakes, streams and wetlands and regulations tailored for individuals sites. Developers could hire an expert to develop a plan to ensure no harm would come to environmentally sensitive areas.

But the growth board and many Loon Lake property owners contend the "no-harm" approach is inadequate because it offers no guidelines and provides no method for enforcement.

Although the Growth Management Act touts local planning, Ott said the growth board "wants us to adopt the DOE (Department of Ecology) buffers that have been imposed by 38 other counties." He contends Stevens County, with fewer than 16 people per square mile, shouldn't be bound by the same rules as more populous counties.

"I believe in private property rights, but you don't have the right to destroy the resources," said Jeanie Wagenman, a Spokane resident and Loon Lake property owner.

So far, Wagenman said, commissioners have failed to declare any land use -- even mining or hazardous-waste handling -- unacceptable in critical areas.

She and some 200 Loon Lake property owners, known as the Larson Beach Neighbors, prompted the growth board's call for sanctions by appealing the county's required "critical areas ordinance."

Wagenman said she believes sanctions are needed to force the county to complete the growth management work it was supposed to have finished 11 years ago.

Ott said he thinks the county has made "great progress" on growth management in the year since he took office.

In fact, there has been so much progress that the county now has two critical area ordinances. Commissioners drafted a new one after their first one was declared invalid in July 2001, but inadvertently failed to repeal the old ordinance.

The second ordinance also failed to satisfy the growth board, and commissioners are trying to meld the two ordinances into one the board will approve.


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