County loses in growth management case - Thurston County court ruling could limit local governments' ability to extend basic services to rural areas
OLYMPIA, WA_ In a move that could restrict local governments' flexibility to expand basic services, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Thurston County's plan to extend a sewer line into a rural area north of Olympia violated Washington's growth management law.
The 6-3 decision held that the sewer line ran afoul of the Growth Management Act's general ban on extending urban services into rural areas. The act is designed to prevent sprawl by requiring dense development in urban areas and limiting housing in rural areas.
Thurston County planned to extend a sewer line up Cooper Point -- a narrow peninsula that juts into Puget Sound -- as a way of replacing aging sewer plants in two subdivisions that predate the 1990 law.
Residents of the peninsula -- mostly affluent waterfront homeowners -- sued, fearful that the 4-inch line would bring more growth into the area because it had hookups for 100 additional households. The area has about 1,000 houses, mostly built before the area was designated rural.
The Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board overruled the county, saying the sewer line wasn't absolutely necessary to address the problem. The Court of Appeals and now the state Supreme Court agreed, rejecting the county's bid for a looser definition of "necessary."
"A more restrictive definition of 'necessary' is consistent with the legislature's intent in enacting the GMA to protect the rural character of an area," Chief Justice Gerry Alexander wrote for the majority.
The decision pleased both the local residents and advocates for strict enforcement of the Growth Management Act, which sought to reduce suburban sprawl by requiring dense development in urban areas and restricting rural areas to one house per 5 acres.
"When you put infrastructure into a rural area, that creates its own pressure to develop," said Barnett Kalikow, the homeowners' attorney. "Before you put infrastructure in, you have to make sure that there is no other reasonable alternative."
While the case was wending its way through the courts, work began on a new sewage treatment plant near the two subdivisions.
But county officials worry the ruling may limit their flexibility to deal with problems on a case-by-case basis. The county had planned for the extra hookups on the line to serve existing houses that use septic systems now -- not new development.
"Prior to proposing an extension of urban services, we'll need to make sure that it's very necessary and that we have the record to back it up," said Jeff Fancher, deputy prosecuting attorney for Thurston County. "It's an issue for a lot of counties."
The case drew attention from interest groups on both ends of the land-use debate. The group 1,000 Friends of Washington, one of the Growth Management Act's most ardent defenders, sided with the landowners.
"When you run sewer lines, urbanization inevitably follows," said Tim Trohimovich, the organization's project director. "Olympia doesn't need that land in the urban growth area. It'll be sprawl."
The Building Industry Association of Washington, which chafes at the law's restrictions on homebuilding, called the threat of sprawl a red herring.
"It kind of handcuffs cities and counties from planning responsibly to protect the citizens," said Kris Tefft, the BIAW's legal counsel, who said the 4-inch pipe proposed by the county wasn't big enough to support much development anyway. "The specter of urbanization which really seemed to scare the majority of the court was really a red herring."
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