I-933: Property rights at center of debate
By Fred Obee
Port Townsend Leader Staff Writer
Port Townsend, WA - It's easy to see why Roger Short distrusts government regulators.
A mile and a half of slow-moving Chimacum Creek passes through his property, and over the decades, the government has led efforts to straighten the creek, cut down trees, plant canary grass and eradicate beavers. Today, environmental planners would recommend just the opposite.
At one time, with the backing of government agencies, the object was to put as much land in production as possible by draining wetlands. Today, setbacks to preserve wetlands and protect salmon have grown so restrictive that Short claims his Chimacum Valley farm isn't worth what he paid for it 20 years ago.
"Overregulation squeezes out the little guy and opens the door for the big guy," Short told an election forum crowd at the Masonic Hall in Port Townsend on Sept. 27. "The government needs to think before it acts."
Short said he thinks the answer is Initiative 933, which is on the ballot this November.
If approved by voters, I-933 would work like this: If government regulations reduce property values, state and local governments would be required to pay owners for their loss or waive the rules and allow a proposed development to go forward. Compensation would be paid when any portion of a property is required to remain in its natural state, when logging is restricted or when new regulations prohibit uses that were legal on Jan. 1, 1996, the initiative says.
Opponents, however, say if approved I-933 will cause a tangle of confusion, will require even more government bureaucracy to process claims, will add uncertainty and delay to land-use decisions and will open rural lands to widespread development.
Elizabeth Davis, a Whidbey Island attorney and chair of a League of Women Voters committee that has studied the issue, told the Masonic Hall crowd the wording of the initiative extends beyond real estate to include all real property, including water rights, and even such things as boats, cars, trailers and stocks. While the initiative is being pushed by the Washington Farm Bureau, it applies to any properties, not just farmland.
She said a law adopted in Oregon which also seeks compensation for aggrieved property owners has resulted in more than 2,500 claims totaling more than $5.6 billion. So far, no compensation has been paid.
"That's a pretty good indication of what will happen in Washington," she said.
The Oregon law, called Measure 37, is more far reaching than I-933, everyone agrees, but its premise is the same. Under that law, one property owner proposed to build a pumice mine and hydrothermal power plant inside the Newberry National Volcanic Monument in central Oregon. When told he couldn't go forward with the project, he claimed the state must pay him #203 million in compensation or waive the rules and let him build. If I-933 passes, property owners could file similar claims here, so long as the use proposed was legal on Jan. 1, 1996.
Not a new issue
This isn't the first time advocates have asked for a statewide vote to protect private property rights.
In 1995, Referendum 48 was placed on the ballot. Although worded differently, like I-933 it would also have required government to pay landowners when regulations imposed for "public benefit" reduced property values. The referendum was defeated at the polls.
The issue fueling the discontent then was the imposition of the Growth Management Act, which restricts uses in rural areas and requires that growth be funneled to cities and towns. Today, growing resentment over the government use of eminent domain nationally and locally for increased setbacks from streams and wetlands is pushing the property rights issue to the forefront once again.
Mark Dembro, board president of the Jefferson Land Trust , said he knows that history is replete with examples of bad government, and he said he knows current growth management laws can be improved. He supports working though those specific problems at the local level, but he's opposed to I-933.
"It's the speculator's bill of rights," he says of I-933. "The facts are the facts. It's bad news."
Dembro said all governance is a balance of individual rights and the rights of community as a whole. Zoning might restrict one person, but it also protects neighbors from inappropriate uses popping up next door. Environmental laws might restrict an individual property owner, but it is in the community's interest to protect the environment, he argues.
Cost of implementation
The initiative has caused a storm of controversy across the sate as government agencies and interest groups weigh in.
An analysis by the state Office of Financial Management, for example, estimated that I-933 would cost state agencies between $2 billion and #2.18 billion in the next six years.
Cities and towns would have to bay between $3.8 billion and $5.3 billion, while counties would pay $1.49 billion to $1.51 billion, the study says.
Supporters of the initiative dispute those numbers. They say they are based on the worst case possible and that if governments are careful and enact legislation that doesn't harm property owners, the cost won't be anywhere near that high.
John Stuhlmiller of the Washington Farm Bureau, and one of the drafters of the initiative, told the Port Townsend crowd that governments managed to find the money to pay for growth management, and that cost was easily in the millions.
"The GMA is stopping reasonable us," Stuhlmiller said. "This is our greatest shot at fairness."
At the Masonic Hall League of Women Voters forum, one questioner asked Short whether his support for I-933 means he's unsatisfied with current county efforts to find a compromise on development setbacks from wetlands and streams.
"The process we're involved in right now is very good," Short acknowledged, but he said he's still wary.
"There's just been so much that's bad in the past," he said.