War on the Plateau

King County Council member Brian Derdowski's latest opponent blames him for growth.

The white signs are the giveaway on the Sammamish Plateau. A proposed land use here, a proposed land use there. Everywhere there are signs signaling condos, apartments, and single family homes to come. If you thought this once idyllic crest, with its woods and breathtaking Cascade views, was already too developed, just wait.

King County Council candidate David Irons Jr. disapprovingly points them out as he drives around the plateau. But he also wants you to look at what's beneath the signs. "Here you have what looks like a rural two-lane road," Irons says turning onto SE 8th Street. And that, he believes, is a serious problem given the urban level of traffic that is already turning three-mile trips around here into 40-minute nightmares.

Here is the decisive question for his bid against longtime King County Council member Brian Derdowski: Who's to blame? Derdowski, whose long-running battle against growth borders on the fanatical, or developers and their allies on the council who have pushed through more growth on the plateau and elsewhere in rural King County than its infrastructure can possibly accommodate? The way voters answer that question will help determine land use policy in the part of the county most susceptible to urban sprawl. Derdowski's 5th Legislative District—stretching from southeastern Bellevue to the Snoqualmie Valley and down through northeastern Renton and Maple Valley—straddles the urban growth boundary that divides the county into urban and rural land for the purposes of development.

Irons is challenging Derdowski in the Republican primary, a race that will decide the general election since no Democrat is running. The owner of a communications company, Issaquah school board member, and scion of a prominent Issaquah family, Irons got off to a shaky start in which many people assumed he was a Derdowski secret agent meant to keep real challengers out of the race. The reason: His sister Di Irons works for his opponent, and his father David Irons Sr. was and is a noted Derdowski supporter. As a further distraction, there was the supposed Democratic candidate, David Wilson, whose behavior was so weird that rumors spread that he was the real stalking-horse for Derdowski. Chalk it up to the bizarre politics of this district, where passions run high and intrigues abound.

Irons does indeed seem very serious about this race, and he has hired high-profile GOP political consultant John Meyers, whose clients include congresswoman Jennifer Dunn. He is campaigning on the novel argument that Derdowski is to blame for the punishing impact of growth. "Brian's been there 10 years, he hasn't helped solve the problem," Irons says.

His argument is subtle enough to confuse some observers. "I'm surprised he doesn't have a different enough agenda," says North Bend Mayor Joan Simpson, a Derdowski supporter who notes that Irons also sounds like a slow-growther.

But Irons does have a distinct case to make, one sharply critical of Derdowski's tenure. He charges, first of all, that Derdowski has been ineffective in fighting growth. On the plateau alone, at least 2,400 new housing units have sprung up in the last two years and the county has approved 12,000 more, in an influx that Irons calculates will double the plateau's population.

His second, more crucial point is that the council member has been so preoccupied with this losing battle that he hasn't done what he could to mitigate the impact of growth by pushing through funding for roads, parks, and schools. In fact, Irons maintains that Derdowski has actively worked against such infrastructure out of a belief that it would fuel further growth. As Irons sees it, the results can be seen not only in traffic jams but in overflowing schools. The Issaquah school board, of which Irons is a member, took the extraordinary measure this summer of moving to seize an elderly couple's home and horse farm (citing eminent domain laws that allow condemnation of property for public use) because the district said it could find no other available land on the plateau on which to build a new school.

"All the political insiders say the same thing," Irons concludes—that Derdowski's "vision has failed."

Whether Irons can convince voters as opposed to political insiders remains to be seen. A little stiff and buttoned-down, Irons, who comes to an interview wearing glasses and a golf tie, is not the most eloquent spokesperson for his case. Derdowski, in contrast, wears open shirts and a folksy manner. His chirpy talkativeness can drive you mad, but it belies a disarming persuasiveness that surfaces when he hits a groove.

Moreover, if it had been up to political insiders, at least those within the Republican party, Derdowski would have been out on his tail long ago. They loathe him for precisely the same reason that voters have historically loved him: his passionate, unwavering opposition to growth, not a popular position in developer-friendly GOP circles. Even worse in those circles, it's hard to find a Derdowski position that identifies him as Republican. As he told two people that stopped by his Preston campaign office the other day, "I'm prochoice, proenvironment, and prolabor."

A variety of forces have worked against Derdowski over the years, from efforts to undermine him within the GOP to embarrassing upheavals in his personal life, but fervent grassroots support has always pulled him through. "Brian's always having these near-death political experiences and still surviving," says GOP political consultant Brett Bader, no Derdowski fan. Like many, Bader thinks it unlikely that Derdowski will lose a Republican primary unless a Democrat is also in the race, drawing away the crossover voters that normally vote for Derdowski.

Others, however, believe that Derdowski is more vulnerable this time around. Kathleen Huckabay, a council member in the new plateau city of Sammamish, points out that much of the development on the plateau has happened only in the last three years, since the local water district lifted its moratorium on new hook-ups. "People felt that by having Brian in office, they would be protected," she says, and now they are waking up to the fact that they were wrong.

This year's Sammamish City Council election may also indicate changing political winds. Every single person on a slate of candidates allied with Derdowski lost, a defeat that was all the more striking given that the council member was a driving force behind the city's incorporation effort.

But is the criticism against Derdowski fair? Tracy Burrows, planning director for 1000 Friends of Washington, a group that monitors growth, doesn't believe so. "Brian has been the key vote in protecting rural landscape," she says.

Burrows has another explanation for runaway growth: "The state's law on concurrency is weak as hell." That's the law that is supposed to ensure that infrastructure keeps pace with growth. But, as Burrows says, "the law says you can go ahead and build if within six years you have the facilities to serve growth. Well, six years is a long time to sit in traffic." And even that law has not been enforced with rigor by the County Council and executive.

When it comes to developments up for approval by the council, member Larry Phillips admits, "We have not been able to say no." It's not for want of trying by Derdowski. The result is that even if Derdowski was a strong advocate for infrastructure improvements in his district, Phillips questions how much he could accomplish. "Quite frankly, the money's not there. Growth is occurring that outstrips our ability to pay for it." Phillips is skeptical of Irons' ability to do better.

Yet there is some truth to Irons' contention that Derdowski has been ambivalent about infrastructure. The council member explains a typical dilemma as he stands in downtown Fall City, a little commercial strip on a two-lane road surrounded by woods, farms, and houses. "If you go five miles this way," he says, pointing east toward Snoqualmie, "you have Snoqualmie Ridge," the massive Weyerhaeuser development. "If you go five miles that way," he says, pointing west, "you have the plateau," with the thousands of residents that live there.

"If you don't do it right, this little town could have speculators come in and aggregate the lots, and you'd have a QFC and a small little mall. You're on a razor's edge."

"Should I lobby to get a four-lane road?" he continues, acknowledging the trucks whizzing by on their way to I-405. "Absolutely not; what I should do is lobby for weight restrictions," he says, thereby rendering the road off-limits to trucks.

For a similar reason, Derdowski opposes adding lanes to Highway 169, which runs from Renton to Enumclaw. Irons favors doing so.

On the counterattack, Derdowski paints Irons' zeal for infrastructure as a covert argument for growth, under the understanding that infrastructure precedes growth. The council member further says to "read the code words" in Irons' position on the urban growth boundary.

"I guarantee it will change," Irons says, as growth maxes out in the urban areas over the next "20 to 50 years."

To even contemplate moving the line, the single most important means of protecting rural land, shows a much greater tolerance for growth than Derdowski has. If Irons has any chance at all, it may be because some voters, looking around them, will also resign themselves to growth. To them, it may appear that Derdowski has outlived his usefulness. The battle has already been lost.

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