Cedar County vs. City Slickers

Mind if I take two-thirds of your property? I thought so. Which explains why rural King County landowners are up in arms about amended "critical-areas" land-use ordinances adopted in October by the King County Council.

Last month, they came downtown in their pickups and SUVs to protest. But to get a sense of the anger, drive east, past Duvall, through Fall City, North Bend, Maple Valley. Places where secessionist "Cedar County" signs are popping up roadside and activists are picketing and petitioning in the awful winter weather.

The petitions are aimed at getting a referendum on the March ballot to overturn the revised laws. They might not succeed; the county and local environmental groups have filed for an injunction against the petitions on the grounds that the new rules were required under the state Growth Management Act and can't be overturned by local initiative.

The county says the changes update protections for streams, wetlands, wildlife, and drinking water, and prevent property damage from flooding and erosion. A surface water ordinance tightens regulations on how much water can run off newly developed sites; a critical-areas ordinance establishes buffers along streams and critical habitat; and a clearing-and-grading ordinance limits rural landowners to clearing only 35 percent to 50 percent of their land, depending on the size of the property. But property-rights activists are claiming the laws go much farther than what the state requires.

All three passed the council 7-6, along party lines, but also along the lines of urban environmentalist vs. rural landowner. The laws expose a fundamental rift between the more urban parts of the county and the sparsely populated hinterlands that often feel unrepresented in county affairs. Hence, the "Cedar County" signs.

Now, I'm all for environmental regulation and growth management. But there has to be some balance, and I'm not convinced by the county's argument that property owners can still do almost anything they want—they need only file a "stewardship plan." Even if true, that sounds like a hike into a bureaucratic quagmire.

One can see, in these situations, where "taking" legislation comes from—the idea that government ought to reimburse property owners for uses of property taken away from them. If I had a piece of land in Duvall that I wanted to build a house on, it's hard to understand why that house posed no environmental problem in September but does now.

The property owners are right. These new ordinances go beyond what the state requires, and it reeks of the sort of urban arrogance that makes states and counties go red. As in Republican red.

Stream protection? Sure. Wetland protection? Absolutely. But as annoying as those provisions can be for a property owner, they're both predictable and easily defensible as providing for a common good. The clearing-and-grading ordinance, however, is more problematic. It's ostensibly anti-sprawl, but if we are to believe county protestations, it doesn't really prevent much of anything—it just adds another layer of bureaucracy. More likely, it prevents development, but in a crazy patchwork that bears no real relationship to any sort of comprehensive land-use planning.

One thing that the new laws have clearly accomplished is creation of a backlash. And in backlashes, the danger is always that the good will be thrown out along with the bad. Particularly with federal cutbacks in salmon protection, anything we can do locally to protect our streams is probably a good idea. Ditto for wetlands. It would be a shame to lose that protection because environmentalists tried to go too far.

Next year, the King County Council will shrink from 13 to nine positions, and the scramble is already under way for seats. This is exactly the sort of issue that can cost Democrats when they have to run in newly suburban and exurban districts. And that, in turn, could swing the council majority from Democrat to Republican.

A rural revolt is under way. King County Executive Ron Sims and the Democratic Party are the targets. And they deserve to be.


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