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Permit fees rile property owners

By Keith Ervin
Seattle Times staff reporter

May 30, 2006

King County, WA - Cory and Brad Johnson were disappointed that King County wouldn't let them build a house close to the Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie River.

What really steamed the young couple, though, was how much the county charged them for the work that went into denying their application.

By the time the Johnsons gave up and bought other property several miles away, they had paid the county $25,306 in hourly permit-review fees.

Now they are participating in a class-action lawsuit challenging building and land-use permit fees charged by the county Department of Development and Environmental Services (DDES).

The outcome of a June 16 hearing could determine whether the county fees charged to thousands of applicants every year are reasonable or whether court-ordered changes are necessary. The litigation throws a spotlight on the billing practices of a county agency that is viewed by many rural property owners as hostile toward them and overzealous in its enforcement of environmental laws.

County officials say the fees are set only as high as needed to pay the cost of processing permits and that large bills like the Johnsons' are rare.

The department billed the Johnsons about $5,300 in flat and hourly permit-review fees before denying them a variance that would have allowed them to build within 100 feet of the Snoqualmie River's Middle Fork.

After the couple appealed the decision, DDES began sending additional bills for the dozens and dozens of hours staffers spent reviewing the land-use case that ultimately turned against the Johnsons. The agency's hourly rate: $138.

"You have no idea how much more you're going to spend," Cory Johnson said of the appeal process. "The next bill could be $500 or it could be $5,000.

"I feel like we basically had written the county a blank check."

Most applicants don't face such high fees, officials say, because they don't seek exceptions to the county's environmental rules. The Johnsons failed to convince permit reviewers or a hearing examiner in their appeal that building near the river would actually protect a wetland and destroy fewer trees.

"If an applicant makes a decision that 'I'm not going to listen to what the department is telling me I can do in accordance with the code, and I'm going to appeal it,' the bill goes up. That's how you get there," said DDES spokeswoman Paula Adams.

Another couple eventually bought the wooded, riverfront lot from the Johnsons and then built a house more than 100 feet from the river.

"This is just shocking"

The Johnsons are part of a parade of property owners, builders, developers and engineers who have filed declarations in the class-action suit claiming they were overcharged for permit processing and denied a fair process for appealing the county fees.

Bill Williamson, a former Kent city attorney who is representing the plaintiffs in the suit against King County, said he has not seen permit fees as high in any other jurisdiction.

"This is just shocking," Williamson said. "There are cases where applicants are charged more on review fees than they are on engineering the project from cradle to grave. We hear that over and over again."

King County has argued that some permit fees in other jurisdictions are actually higher than the county's. Seattle's hourly rate, for instance, ranges from $155 for some building-permit reviews to $250 for land-use reviews, compared with King County's current $144.90 rate.

Since the case was filed in 2003 in Snohomish County Superior Court, Judge James Allendoerfer has thrown out some of the plaintiffs' legal arguments but has kept others alive.

In an oral ruling last year, Allendoerfer said some permit fees appeared excessive and suggested King County must adopt an impartial process when it considers challenges to its fees.

The judge said the county's billable hours sometimes appeared inflated, citing developers' claims that they had watched inspectors "standing around for hours at a time with their arms crossed, without taking notes and without doing anything except monitoring."

King County attorneys have asked the judge to reconsider his ruling, saying he was misled by inaccurate "war stories" told by permit applicants. Both sides have submitted voluminous amounts of evidence.

"Fair way of paying"

Controversy over county permit fees has grown since 1999, when the county responded to a budget crisis by sharply raising its permit fees.

"We don't get any taxpayer subsidies for the permit functions, so the permit applicants in King County are paying the full cost of what it takes to review their permits," said DDES director Stephanie Warden. "Obviously, we're being criticized for that, but it's a fair way of paying for those government services."

Warden said some of the plaintiffs' complaints are out of date because the county has improved its practices since the class-action lawsuit was filed in 2003. Reviews of large or complex projects are now coordinated by a single project manager, and customers are given binding fee estimates at the start of the permit process, she said.

Bob Johns, a Master Builders Association representative and chairman of the advisory committee that suggested those changes, told the court that county project managers haven't been given enough authority, the fee estimates are "at the extreme high end of the range," and explanations of bills are still vague.

When Renee Thornton asked for a detailed breakdown of the bills she received for permits to expand the Pine Lake campus of Lakeside Montessori School, "They said, 'No, we can't do that, and we're charging you $33 for this phone call.'

"It didn't even seem to have any rhyme or reason," Thornton said of the bills she and her husband, James, received. "We just had to pay blindly, not knowing what it was for."

DDES chief Warden said those kinds of complaints are atypical: "We issue thousands of permits every year, and for most of them it goes smoothly."

It's the county's duty, Warden said, to enforce strict environmental standards — and that costs money. "We take our responsibility seriously," she said. "We do thorough reviews, and the applicants that are used to constructing in King County know that."

What Warden sees as thoroughness is, for Cory Johnson, a lack of accountability: "There was no way to know what they were working on, what they were doing, how many people were assigned. We had absolutely no control over it."

Now in the University of Washington School of Law, Johnson wishes she had the $25,306 in permit fees back to help with tuition.

"I think it took years off my life," she said of the experience. "Honestly, it was awful."

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com


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