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Originally published March 5, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 5, 2009 at 12:14 AM

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Court decision sparks debate on use of rural lands

Rural property owners and environmentalists are debating how King County should protect streams after the state Supreme Court decided not to review an appellate ruling that struck down a companion law to the 2004 Critical Areas Ordinance.

Seattle Times staff reporter

While rural property owners celebrate the demise of a King County law that severely limited how much vegetation they could remove, environmentalists and county officials are wondering how to protect streams and threatened chinook salmon.

The state Supreme Court said Tuesday it wouldn't review a Court of Appeals ruling that struck down the controversial clearing-and-grading law as an improper tax or fee on development.

Passed in 2004 along with a new Critical Areas Ordinance, the law required rural property owners to keep native vegetation on 50 to 65 percent of their land, depending on the size of the property.

Advocates of the law said it reflected a growing body of scientific research showing the health of streams deteriorates sharply when a significant amount of forest cover is cut down in a watershed.

But the law sparked a huge backlash among rural landowners, who said it took away their ability to use most of their land. That reaction didn't stop County Executive Ron Sims — who proposed the ordinance — from winning re-election in 2005 over David Irons, a Metropolitan King County Council member who opposed the law.

In a news release that implicitly likened the clearing restrictions to a vampire, Pacific Legal Foundation attorney Brian Hodges said the Supreme Court "has served justice by driving a stake through one of the most extreme and outrageous assaults on property rights in the United States."

Hodges represented the Citizens' Alliance for Property Rights in its lawsuit challenging the law.

Citizens' Alliance President Steve Hammond, who voted against the clearing ordinance as a County Council member, said it required property owners to give up use of two-thirds of their land.

"The only way I know how to get folks who don't live in the affected area to understand it is to say, 'What if I walked into your bathroom and said, 'You have three fixtures: You can keep one and the other two have to go?' " Hammond said.

Supporters of the law said the high court's decision complicates efforts to keep streams healthy and save Puget Sound.

"We're disappointed that the Supreme Court is not going to hear the case. We're evaluating our options, and we'll develop a course of action soon," said Carolyn Duncan, spokeswoman for Sims.

"The No. 1 problem for Puget Sound is the disruption of the hydrology," said Kathy Fletcher, executive director of People for Puget Sound. "Stormwater issues start at the point of development. The most effective way of managing stormwater is to allow Mother Nature to do most of the job. ...

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"For the taxpayer, the most expensive way of taking care of salmon and streams and Puget Sound is to try to re-create what Mother Nature does for free. For the taxpayer this could be pretty bad news."

Or it could mean higher costs and a more cumbersome process for property owners who want to develop their rural land, said Stephanie Warden, director of the county Department of Development and Environmental Services (DDES).

To keep streams healthy, Warden said, the county now might have to require property owners to submit studies showing how their development proposals would affect streams.

"We felt it was easier on the property owners to have a specific clearing limit," she said.

Hodges warned county officials not to require such studies. If they do, he said, "What's going to be cumbersome and costly is the lawsuit that will follow. ... If they are going to require that private-property owners set aside these massive open-space tracts as a condition of development, the burden is on the government to prove that it is necessary."

Asked if the county would stop enforcing the clearing law immediately, DDES spokeswoman Paula Adams said officials are consulting with lawyers. She said the county hasn't yet received a final ruling from the Snohomish County Superior Court trial judge.

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

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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