Time to end autocratic hearings boards

By Martha M. Ireland
Column for February 7, 2003 -
Peninsula Daily News

In late 1997, Clallam County adopted an agricultural zoning ordinance that was promptly challenged by George F. Hudson and Nash Huber, the same duo that successfully challenged Clallamís 1995 agricultural overlay.

The Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board upheld Clallamís second attempt, describing the regulation as "innovative" and declaring it one of the best the board had seen.

Back then, as a county commissioner, I was a primary author of that ordinance, so I found the ruling particularly gratifying. However, it did not change my opinion of Growth Management Hearings Boards.

I am offended by the very concept of an appointed board having authority to over-rule local statutes adopted by your elected representatives after lengthy public process.

But that isnít the way the hearings boards were supposed to operate, according to Sen. Jim Hargrove (Dist. 24-D) who was in the House of Representatives when the Growth Management Act was adopted in1990 and amended in 1991.

"The GMA dictate is to plan, itís not supposed to dictate what the plans are to look like," Hargrove says. "These boards were never supposed to rule on the details of the plans."

In practice, however, the boards dwell on details.

Jefferson Countyís comprehensive plan went through the review wringer twice.

Clallam County currently has a case before the board, dealing with "the interpretation of what is best available science," notes Commissioner Steve Tharinger.

The overreaching of the Hearings Boards is a perennial topic when Clallam and Jefferson officials meet with the three legislators who represent the North Olympic Peninsula in Olympia-Hargrove and state Reps. Jim Buck, R-Joyce, and Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam.

Although Tharinger and Clallam Commissioner Mike Doherty are fans of the Growth Management Act, Tharinger reports that-like their anti-GMA predecessors-they regularly mention to the legislators that "the hearings boards are difficult."

After several unsuccessful legislative attempts to rein in the hearings boards, Hargrove now proposes eliminating the boards altogether. He is lead sponsor of Senate Bill 5282, which would send land use planning cases directly to Superior Court.

Buck and Kessler support elimination of the boards.

Tharinger, who has not yet seen SB 5282, hesitates to endorse it, but favors limiting the scope of the boardsí review to questions about process.

In addition to returning the details of planning to the realm of representative government, SB 5282 offers $3 million of direct savings to state government, Hargrove calculates.

The three hearings boards are each comprised of three members with annual salaries in the $100,000 range, plus staff, travel and other expenses.

"Cost savings is the root of why I think (eliminating them) is a good idea," says Kessler who feels the hearings boards "have outlived their usefulness."

When it comes to allocating scarce state dollars, Kessler rates health care and education as higher priorities than the hearings boards.

Initial opposition to SB 5282 comes from Superior Court judges who fear a huge increase in their caseloads, Hargrove notes. That overload wonít happen, the senator predicts, if the courts rule only on process, staying clear of the details in which the boards have dabbled.

Are the hearings boards on the way out?

Kessler thinks money may be the key to accomplishing that feat.

Responds Buck: "I hope we can get 5282 to the governor. Itís up for grabs if he will sign it."



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