Property-rights initiative being explored



When Tim Matthes considers how government rules have eclipsed people's retirement dreams, a property-rights initiative seems overdue.

He bought a small cattle property outside of Port Orchard 34 years ago, when land seemed like a good investment for a young shipyard worker.

Tim Matthes' plans for his five acres outside Port Orchard had to be scrapped after zoning laws disallowed subdividing the property.(Editor's Note: The original version of this photo caption misstated the number of acres.)

But plans to leave parcels to his children evaporated after zoning rules preventing suburban sprawl made it impossible to subdivide. Wetland regulations could keep him from building a one-story home suitable for an aging couple.

Land-use frustrations such as those -- and popular support for a landmark property-rights ballot measure in Oregon -- have spurred the Washington Farm Bureau's board to direct its staff to explore an initiative here, said the bureau's government relations director, Dan Wood.

Details and timing of a proposal haven't been hashed out, he said. But it would generally focus on requiring government to compensate or provide relief to people hurt when regulations limit the use of their land. "I can tell you there's a lot of interest," Wood said. "I think there's quite a clamor out there for a solution."

Sprawl watchdogs are already gearing up for a fight, preparing to combat the same kind of emotional campaign featuring 92-year-old widows and sympathetic landowners that apparently resonated with Oregon voters.

Washington voters already emphatically rejected a measure 10 years ago that would have required local governments to compensate landowners when regulations reduced their property values.

Oregon's Measure 37, passed in November, gives local governments the choice of paying monetary claims -- which no one expects cash-strapped jurisdictions to do -- or waiving the land-use rules.

Opponents here say support evaporates as soon as people realize that it leads to subdivisions plopped down next to farms, orchards or wineries. By giving individual landowners carte blanche, protections keeping rendering plants or porn shops out of neighborhoods are lost, they argue.

They contend that Washington has little appetite for paying developers and landowners who want to maximize profits rather than to make reasonable use of their land.

"They pulled a fast one in Oregon, without a doubt. We will make sure people know what this is about -- creating loopholes for sprawl developers," said Aaron Ostrom, executive director of Futurewise, the advocacy group formerly called 1000 Friends of Washington.

'Citizens are rebelling'

Others say the strong public support for Oregon's ballot measure -- which won 61 percent of the vote and passed even in liberal Multnomah County -- has revived interest in a similar measure here.

Tom McCabe, executive vice-president of the Building Industry Association of Washington, said residents here have had a decade since voters defeated the 1995 initiative to butt up against a bewildering array of laws regulating matters such as how wide beachfront paths can be and which trees they can cut.

"I think it shows you that the time is right," he said. "We were 10 years too early. We've now had a decade of confiscatory land use, and citizens are rebelling."

But Futurewise officials say a recent poll it commissioned of 400 likely voters across the state suggests those claims are exaggerated. Only 21 percent felt government had unfairly restricted the use of their land. Sixty percent said it's more important to protect neighborhoods from poorly planned developments than to protect the rights of individual property owners, according to the poll conducted by the Evans/McDonough research firm.

"These aren't numbers that show this initiative will pass in Washington," said Aisling Kerins, campaign coordinator for Futurewise.

Old tensions

Property rights advocates, however, contend that the state has failed to address fundamental inequities created by growth-management laws. Some landowners have profited as the supply of buildable land shrank and their property values climbed. Matthes, who originally could have put five homes on his Port Orchard property, lost that option when rural-development restrictions were approved.

Because the tiny rental cabin there now sits too close to a wetland, it's unlikely that the 57-year-old could replace it with the larger single-story rambler that he and his wife imagined for their retirement years. In those circumstances, the footprint of a house is generally allowed to expand by only 20 percent.

"It's gotten to the point where if they'd just let me build the one house, I'd be happy. But even that's up in the air," said Matthes, who is the president of the Kitsap Alliance of Property Owners.

Rules recently adopted in King County to prevent flooding and protect environmentally sensitive areas have fueled old tensions. A provision requiring landowners to leave half to two-thirds of their property in native vegetation has lit up talk radio.

John Penberth, chairman of the Lewis County Democrats who runs an auction company in tiny Pe Ell, said there's fear that the King County model will spread across the state.

From his vantage point, it seems like a property-rights initiative would have little trouble tapping into anger over everything from growth management to the governor's election.

"It seems that King County is dictating so much in this state that people are in this hell of a hostile mood down here, and I don't know where or how this turmoil is going to end," he said.

'Respectful and reasonable'

King County Executive Ron Sims -- the target of rural landowners' frustration -- said the success of any initiative will depend in part on who can better articulate issues of fairness. Landowners who want to develop rural property have done a good job lately of staging horse-trailer parades and commanding media attention with dramatic assertions that aren't necessarily accurate, he said.

But he thinks few people actually want rural character destroyed or mountaintops covered with homes.

Voters would have to weigh whether it's fair for people who love the country to find a subdivision next door because their neighbor wanted to cash out, or for urban areas to export scarce road money to support sprawl, he said.

"We should not allow some people to say, 'I want to have 20 houses on my property -- I don't care if the schools can't handle it and the roads can't handle it because, by God, this is what I want,' " he said.

But the Washington Farm Bureau's Wood said the average person thinks the idea of the government forcing people to grow native plants and weeds on two-thirds of his property is a bizarre Internet rumor and not a real government rule.

Wood -- an architect of the unsuccessful 1995 compensation measure -- said the initiative idea that's currently under discussion wouldn't necessarily mirror those that have been run in the Northwest.

It also wouldn't allow landowners to pollute or cause flooding or put undesirable businesses in neighborhoods, he said. It would seek to make governments stop overreaching, or pay people who come out on the losing end of regulations.

"We'll make it as balanced and as palatable as we can ... what we want to do is find something where government can be respectful and reasonable to property owners," he said.

P-I reporter Jennifer Langston can be reached at 206-448-8130 or



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