State court blocks citizen land use referenda
Published December 22, 2006
Local government's land use decisions, such as King County's "critical areas" ordinance, are not subject to citizen referenda, the state Supreme Court reaffirmed Thursday.
The high court, in a 7-2 opinion, declined to overturn a 12-year-old land-use case out of Whatcom County that set the policy of forbidding public votes on zoning and other local decisions developed to comply with the state's 1990 Growth Management Act.
The case was brought by King County and 1000 Friends of Washington, an environmental advocacy group, after a citizen, Rodney McFarland, sought a public vote on three ordinances adopted by the King County Council on Dec. 1, 2004.
One ordinance designates and regulates critical areas in unincorporated King County and amends zoning accordingly. A second regulates storm water and the third regulates clearing and grading. Collective ly, they run to nearly 400 pages.
McFarland sought to place all three on the countywide ballot, citing the county's home-rule charter that grants citizens broad initiative and referendum rights. The King County Superior Court blocked the referenda, declaring local decisions off limits whenever the county is acting under the state mandates to protect and regulate land-use under the state law.
Followed similar case
The high court, which laid down a similar doctrine in a 1994 Whatcom County case, declined to change its view. The Legislature has been aware of the question for 12 years and has declined to specifically authorize local votes on growth-management matters, allowing the court's view to stand, the majority said.
The statewide Growth Management Act requires local governments to plan for growth, protect the environment, protect property rights, and designate and protect critical areas, such as wetlands, habitat, drinking-water aquifers, and flood-prone and geologically hazardous areas.
Those decisions can't be overridden by local voters or the state's overall interest in consistent and thorough land-use planning would be frustrated, Justice Tom Chambers wrote for the majority.
"When the people of the state require action from a local legislature or executive body, those actions are not subject to a veto via a referendum," the court said.
"It would violate the constitutional blueprint to allow a subdivision of the state to frustrate the mandates of the people of the state as a whole."
Statewide voters could mount an initiative or referendum on the growth-management laws passed by Olympia, Chambers wrote.
He and six colleagues, writing in three separate opinions, stressed their support of the initiative and referendum power, but Chambers and three other justices added, "The sovereignty of the people of individual localities gives way to the people of the state's greater sovereignty" through their elected legislators and the statewide initiative process.
Chambers said the Growth Management Act requires King County and other local governments to include "an enormous amount of deliberative public participation" as the ordinances are developed.
The state law includes a lot of local control, Chambers wrote, but it's still "a state power that is being exercised to further state mandates."
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