Jefferson County residents stir passions over property rights vs. environment
By Jeff Chew, Peninsula Daily News
CHIMACUM, WA — The political line between environmental protection and property rights was clearly drawn Wednesday night when more than 30 people spoke out about a proposed Jefferson County ordinance that would regulate building near streams and wetlands.
Port Hadlock real estate agent Terry Nomura told the three county commissioners and an audience of about 100 people at the forum at Chimacum High School that she supports the proposed critical areas ordinance as a way to protect water quality.
"It's not just downstream on the river, it's down under," the ground, she said.
"Water is the new gold."
Nomura said that her clients come to Jefferson County to enjoy and protect its beauty, and so she wouldn't expect them to object to restrictions that would protect environmentally-sensitive areas.
Others saw it differently.
Bob Pontius, of Port Ludlow, an unsuccessful Republican candidate for county commissioner, argued, "When you set these buffers and eliminate property from use, you basically violate the Constitution."
Chimacum farmer Roger Short angrily stormed out of the meeting after Phil Johnson, commission chairman, refused to allow him to speak longer than the allotted three minutes given each person.
When deputies, who had been summoned, asked if Short could stay, and Johnson agreed he could, Short shot back, "Why would I stay with a bunch of communists?"
Short said he went blind in his right eye after suffering a stroke brought on by stress while trying to work through county regulations to establish a creamery on the farmland his father bought in 1925.
March 18 deadline
The critical areas ordinance would, among other things, set buffer zones to keep development varying distances from streams, wetlands and migration channels.
The county commissioners have until March 18 to adopt it.
The proposal has under gone years of public discussion and volatile debate, much of it among members of the county planning commission and a special 18-member committee that researched recommendations.
The state Growth Management Hearings Board has extended the ordinance's adoption deadline four times.
The extensions were to allow the county to address public concerns about wetland science, floodplains, agricultural exemptions from the ordinance and the zones in which rivers and streams move.
The proposed ordinance is part of an agreement struck with the Washington Environmental Council, an environmental state-lobbying group that went before the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board in 2005.
WEC argued that the county failed to comply with the state Growth Management Act regarding critical areas, such as wetlands, migration channels and flood zones.
The matter was settled with WEC in executive session behind closed doors.
County commissioners said settlement was necessary to avoid a long-term costly legal battle with the group.
In May 2006, the Jefferson County Department of Community Development drafted a critical areas ordinance update that in some cases increased by 100 percent the wetland buffer zones — the largest being 300 feet.
The WEC agreement ignited a storm of protest from Jefferson County farmers, including Short, who circled Jefferson County Courthouse with sign-bearing tractors in June 2006.
They feared that 300-foot buffers would mean they could not develop their properties.
WEC officials said agriculture would be exempt, and the critical areas draft now includes that exemption.
Jim Hagen, former county Planning Commission chairman, said that the county commissioners cut "backroom deals" on the ordinance.
"It's up to us to make sure this ordinance works and that it must have the widest possible acceptance," Hagen said.
A large contingent of Port Townsend residents showed up to support the proposed ordinance.
They included Andrew Reding, who quoted the Bible and the U.S. Constitution, saying that when it comes to property rights there are no absolutes.
"We have an obligation to our community and the property around us," said Reding, referring to environmental protection.
The proposal includes a new "stewardship plan" that would allow property owners more flexibility in development site planning based on existing site conditions, not future restrictive standards.
Rene Bush, who owns 20 acres on the Little Quilcene River, said that, as an environmentalist and a liberal, she feared that large buffers would serve only to make landowners feel helpless.
She urged the county to use a "carrot rather than a stick" to encourage stewardship of the land.
The Planning Commission on Dec. 12 voted to approve the proposed critical areas ordinance by a vote of 6-2, with an excused absence.
They forwarded the proposal to the county commissioners for final approval.