Proposed regulation riles rural residents - farmers, residents band together to fight critical areas ordinance updates

By Ashley Bach
Seattle Times Eastside bureau



May Valley farmer Dick Colasurdo says his land, divided by May Creek shown in the background, would be ruined by the property-rule changes that King County is considering.

King County, WA - After years of solitary grumbling, some farmers and rural residents across King County are banding together to fight what they say are increasing threats from city-centric bureaucrats.

It's not the first time farmers have fought government, but this time they have a political-action committee and a clear target.

The object of their scorn: a proposed update of the county's critical-areas ordinance (CAO).

Officials are considering restrictions that would increase buffers for streams and wetlands and increase management of storm-water runoff.

The gathering together is also significant because rural residents aren't used to working together, residents say.

"The attempt to change the CAO may be the best thing to happen to rural (King) County because it gets us off our butts and organized," said Rodney McFarland, a resident of May Valley near Renton and member of the new committee. "It's tough to get 10 farmers in the same room and have them agree on anything."

Public workshop

King County is holding a public workshop tonight to go over possible changes pertaining to agriculture in the second draft of the critical-areas ordinance. The meeting is from 6:30 to 9 p.m. at the Preston Community Center, 8625 310th Ave. S.E., Preston.

Since the first draft of the ordinance was released in December, residents from Enumclaw to Duvall have gathered in restaurant basements and livestock halls. Small groups are connecting through e-mail and pledging support.

Hundreds of people showed up for public meetings on the ordinance earlier this year, arguing that it would strip them of rights to develop their property.

Their activism seems to be paying off. The county decided recently to delay the process by several months to write a second draft, which will be released for public comment in May. Significant changes probably will be made, officials said.

When the ordinance is presented to the Metropolitan King County Council, probably late this year, rural residents will have at least a few council members' support.

If the first draft passed, "there would not be a farmer left" within five years, said Councilman David Irons Jr., R-Sammamish.

Under that draft, the buffers around streams in many areas would increase from 100 feet to 165 feet. The buffers around many wetlands would triple, from 100 feet to 300 feet. If rural residents wanted to clear their land, they'd be required to keep 65 percent of the property untouched.

All of these provisions are up for debate with the new draft, said Harry Reinert, special-projects manager for the county Department of Development and Environmental Services, which is helping write the ordinance.

The new regulations are all based on "best available science," which means the latest research on everything from storm-water management to salmon counts, Reinert said. The county also is required under the state Growth Management Act to update the critical-areas ordinance by the end of next year.

Regardless of any obligations, the current buffers aren't working, Reinert said. Some fish runs are down, and excessive storm-water runoff could be making flooding worse in some areas, he said.

"What we're doing now isn't good enough," he said.

Any current use of rural property would be exempt from the new regulations in other words, the regulations would not apply unless residents built on or altered their property, he said. Other suggestions also are being taken seriously.

"We all need in this process to respect each other," Reinert said.

"(The county) is not trying to deliberately harm people in rural areas."

For many farmers, the discontent started with the original critical-areas ordinance, which passed in 1990 and limited how they could develop their land.

The unrest culminated in the mid-1990s, when some rural residents tried to carve a new county out of east King County.

The Cedar County Committee collected 24,000 signatures. But the effort died in 1998, when the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that only the Legislature could create a new county. Now some of the same residents are creating a new political-action committee, the Property Rights PAC, to help fight the new ordinance and eventually help elect sympathetic policy-makers. The group has raised about $10,000.

"King County is controlled by downtown Seattle," said Ronald Mariotti, an Enumclaw resident and vice president of the new committee.

Dick Colasurdo, who's owned 60 acres in May Valley since the 1940s, said his farm could be ruined by any new buffers. "They're going to rewrite (the ordinance), I hope," he said, "so we can stay alive."

Ashley Bach: 206-464-2567 or

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company


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