RURAL RAGE - Some king county residents look at secession as the answer
MAYNARD; The News Tribune
Over a breakfast of ham, eggs and cheese in his office, Enumclaw
livestock auctioneer Ronald Mariotti accused King County of stealing
his private property rights.
He took a bite of fried eggs delivered from the Branding Iron Cafe across the hall. The thought of tough new land-use restrictions doesn’t go down so easy.
“How can seven people tell tens of thousands of people in unincorporated King County what to do with their land?” he said.
Like many other residents in rural areas, Mariotti is fighting a majority of the King County Council. In October it passed a Critical Areas Ordinance that imposes strict clearing limits, wider stream buffers and other environmental regulations.
County Council member Dow Constantine, who wrote the final version, says the county has done a poor job communicating the land-use limits. This has allowed “a small group of property-rights ideologues to scare the heck out of people.”
Rural rage has been building for years. It started with clashes over strict enforcement of county codes. Now the anger is boiling over into action.
Mariotti and other rural landowners have asked the state Supreme Court to intervene. They hope the high court will allow the ordinance to go to voters for a possible repeal.
If they don’t win there, they’ll attempt to pull off what they say is their ultimate solution: seceding from King County and forming a new county.
Quietly, rural landowners have met to plant the seeds for forming what’s called Cascade County. An effort to form a new government, called Cedar County, failed in 1998 when the state Supreme Court ruled the Legislature can’t be forced to create a new county. This time, rural residents are supporting a bill in the Legislature that would make it easier to break away.
“Maybe it’s time we get a divorce and the people outside of Seattle get their own county,” said Lambert, a Redmond Republican.
There’s yet another big move afoot. A signature drive is being planned for a statewide “Balanced Rights Initiative” patterned after Oregon’s Measure 37. It would require government to pay landowners or exempt them from land-use regulations that would take away use of their property, said proponent Gary Tripp of Bainbridge Citizens United.
Critics say Measure 37 was bad for Oregon and would be a disaster for Washington. Aaron Ostrom, executive director of Futurewise, formerly known as 1000 Friends of Washington, said such a measure would tell government: “You pay off the developer or they do whatever they want.”
He also said rural residents don’t have the legal authority or population support to create a new county. It would need its own courthouse, sheriff’s department and county government.
“It creates a lot more problems than it solves,” Ostrom said. “What they would find is they would probably pay more in the end.”
Rep. Geoff Simpson (D-Covington) said he wants to have a good discussion about the new county bill in the committee that he chairs. But he also said seceding from King County would be “like cutting off your rich uncle.”
About 120,000 of King County’s 1.8 million residents live in unincorporated rural areas.
The rage in these parts has escalated since three years ago, when Mariotti and County Councilman Steve Hammond formed the Citizens’ Alliance for Property Rights. “The rural areas are very fired up,” said Hammond, an Enumclaw Republican. “I see a groundswell of grass-roots groups saying the regulating of private property has gone too far.”
The latest trigger is the Critical Areas Ordinance, approved by the Democratic-controlled County Council along party lines. It widened the buffers along streams and wetlands where development is forbidden, and reduced how much water can run off newly developed sites.
But the restriction that drew the most outrage prohibits landowners from clearing up to 65 percent of their land. Pierce County previously approved a similar tough clearing rule.
Constantine points out that the state’s Growth Management Act requires protecting critical areas such as wetlands and streams, so a new county would have to adopt similar regulations.
The West Seattle Democrat, whose district includes rural Vashon Island, wrote the toned-down, final version of the ordinance, which created an exemption for land that’s already cleared.
“Most people won’t notice a bit of difference in how they use their land,” Constantine said.
Stan Powers, a 46-year-old contractor, disagrees.
He’s so fed up with King County, he leaves his steel entrance gate chained shut at his 7-acre farm in the Covington-Black Diamond area.
Powers has had code run-ins with King County and doesn’t want to deal with the county over the new clearing and stream buffer restrictions.
Powers, who wears black wire-rimmed glasses and a beard, lives with his wife, Laurel, and their two teenage daughters in a 4,200-square-foot cedar house he built two years ago. They raise miniature cows, goats and horses.
Because of the new clearing restrictions, he maintains, “If I needed to build a hay barn for the animals, forget it.”
He’s a good steward of his land, he said; it’s the county that’s gone too far.
Because the Critical Areas Ordinance is a package of three measures, the Citizens’ Alliance for Property Rights set out to put three referendums before voters to reverse the restrictions. The group collected 18,000 signatures in five weeks.
But King County Superior Court Judge Palmer Robinson ruled in January the referendums went beyond the scope of what’s allowed in voter challenges.
Rodney McFarland, president of the Citizens’ Alliance for Property Rights, hopes the Supreme Court will see things differently.
McFarland doesn’t believe the bill to set up a procedure for starting a county will make it out of a committee in the Democrat-controlled Legislature. The next recourse is a statewide initiative.
McFarland, who lives in the May Valley area between Renton and Issaquah, said changing the law and the political landscape for rural residents in King County will be “a long fight.” His group has raised $35,000 of the $50,000 it needs for legal help.
Mariotti, who’s lived his entire 66 years in Enumclaw, says forming a new county is the only solution.
When he started the citizens’ alliance, Mariotti fought the county over the $8,000 he pays each year in fees for surface water management, even though the county never needs to do drainage work on his property.
Now, a sign near the cafe at his livestock pavilion warns “No CAO!” with a red slash. “Property owners you are about to be robbed! King County is about to make 65 percent of your property unusable,” the sign reads.
In the end, the rural residents will get what they want, said Mariotti, finishing his eggs and peering out from his black cowboy hat.
“It’s got to be in favor of the people,” he said. “If it’s in favor of the politicians, we’re living in the wrong county.”
Rural King County residents are fighting land-use restrictions by:
• Appealing to the state Supreme Court for a vote to reverse King County’s Critical Areas Ordinance.
• Pushing a bill in the Legislature to establish a way to start a new county.
• Planning signature-gathering for a “Balanced Rights Initiative” requiring the government to compensate or exempt landowners who lose use of their property due to land-use restrictions.
To learn about the Citizens’ Alliance for Property Rights, visit www.proprights.org. For more about King County’s Critical Areas Ordinance, visit http://dnr.metrokc.gov/topics/cao/.
In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work in this message is distributed under fair use without profit or payment for non-profit research and educational purposes only. [Ref. http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml]