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Originally published March 4, 2009 at 1:04 PM | Page modified March 4, 2009 at 2:11 PM

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Big court victory for rural property owners

The state Supreme Court has handed a huge victory to rural property owners in King County who fought a part of the Critical Areas Ordinance package that requires them to keep native vegetation on 50 to 65 percent of their land.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Rural property owners who fought a King County law severely restricting how much land they can clear have won a huge victory.

The state Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to review an appeals-court decision that struck down the law as an improper tax or fee on development. Chief Justice Gerry Alexander signed an order in which he and four other justices unanimously denied the county's petition for review of the Court of Appeals ruling.

The clearing restrictions, part of a package that includes the Critical Areas Ordinance, require rural property owners to keep native vegetation on 50 to 65 percent of their land, depending on its size. They were adopted as a way of protecting streams and wildlife, including the threatened chinook salmon.

Steve Hammond, president of the Citizens' Alliance for Property Rights, said the order "puts the nail in the coffin" of the most controversial element in the critical-areas package.

"I've been saying since 2004, when I was on the [County] Council, this is not the right thing to do," Hammond said of the clearing law. "This is the homeowner having to make a donation to the open-space program. Two-thirds of your property is a pretty significant donation. That's bad.

"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?' "

Stephanie Warden, director of the county Department of Development and Environmental Services, which helped draft the clearing law and enforces it, said she was disappointed by the court's ruling and will meet with attorneys to discuss the county's legal options.

Warden said the county adopted the one-size-fits-all clearing restriction in an effort to make the process less onerous for property owners.

"One approach," she said, "could have been to require that the property owner submit a site-specific study and then we would determine on a parcel-by-parcel basis what the clearing limit should be. But we felt it was easier on the property owners to have a specific clearing limit."

The state Supreme Court's decision not to hear the case didn't attract immediate public attention because it was issued on a Tuesday and wasn't posted on the Supreme Court's Web site. Opinions in cases that have been argued before the court are typically posted online on Thursdays.

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

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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