King County locked in debate over wetland ordinance

by Dean A. Radford
King County Journal Reporter

King County, WA - Farmers and builders fear they'll lose valuable land where they graze their dairy cows and build new homes if the county makes its sensitive areas ordinances too strict.

But county officials say their goal in protecting streams and wetlands is also to ensure that agriculture is preserved and the county can meet its housing targets.

The debate will rage for another several weeks as officials prepare an update of the county's laws governing critical areas and stormwater. Final say rests with the King County Council, which also will hold a series of public hearings.

Some of the rules dictate the width of buffers around wetlands, streams and ponds and how much water can run off from a development. The new rules would apply only to new uses of the land or new developments.

County officials also give assurances that the regulations won't wipe out what's left of the county's dairy farms. Not everyone agrees, however.

Joan Burlingame of Ravensdale has been living one of the proposed regulations for about 25 years. She keeps about 65 percent of her five acres in forestland. In doing so, she says, she's helping to protect Kent's water supply.

``If we don't have the trees in the ground, the aquifer doesn't hold the water,'' said Burlingame, because rainfall simply runs off. And too much runoff scours out stream beds where salmon like to spawn.

Burlingame favors coming up with money to buy the development rights to thousands of still-undeveloped land in the Rock Creek Valley.

The goal is to keep 65 percent of the county's forestland intact. But that may be mathematically impossible in some watersheds because too much has already been developed.

Such a policy won't work in more urbanized unincorporated areas because most of the forest cover is gone. In those areas the county would require ``technical solutions'' to controlling runoff, such as larger stormwater ponds.

``This makes the most sense for where they are,'' said Harry Reinert, a special projects manager for the county's Department of Development and Environmental Services.

What doesn't make sense to some farmers is the growing size of buffers around wetlands and the need to fence off streams to keep livestock out of them.

But Reinert said livestock regulations are changing little. One change is that farmers who don't have a farm-management plan must keep livestock 50 feet from a stream.

Ray Burhen runs 15 head of cattle on his 70 acres near Carnation. He figures he could lose about two dozen acres to grazing and have to build about 2,500 feet of fencing. Reinert said that may not be the case.

Burhen said the proposed regulations are ``pulling up the noose a little tighter.''

``I know the county means well,'' he said. However, ``if they had to come out and work the land and take care of it and abide by the rules and regulations, they would see what they've done.''

Dean Radford covers King County. He can be reached at or 253-872-6719.


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