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Originally published October 12, 2009 at 12:08 AM | Page modified October 12, 2009 at 12:04 AM

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Constantine, Hutchison on environmental issues

King County executive candidates Dow Constantine and Susan Hutchison are starkly different when it comes to environmental issues.

Seattle Times staff reporter

King County executive candidatesdebate environmental issues

When: 7-8 p.m. today. Doors open at 6:30

Where: The Seattle Aquarium, 1483 Alaskan Way

Cost: Free

Information or RSVP: E-mail info@wffe.org

Co-Sponsors: Washington Foundation for the Environment, People For Puget Sound, National Wildlife Federation, Washington Environmental Council, Cascade Land Conservancy, Futurewise, Seattle Aquarium Society, Transportation Choices Coalition, Washington Toxics Coalition, Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, Climate Solutions, Foster Pepper

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On environmental issues, voters face a clear choice in this race between Dow Constantine and Susan Hutchison for King County executive.

She supports the expansion of a gravel mine on Maury Island; he opposes it. He says climate change is a top priority for the executive, connected to local policies from land use to transportation. She says global warming takes a back seat to public safety and budget issues.

Environmental cred is key in a job where the executive must deal with everything from growth management and land use to endangered species and protecting Puget Sound. The two candidates bring very different work experience to the job — and have engaged very different approaches to environmental issues in the campaign.

Constantine is a lawyer with a master's degree in urban planning. He spent years both at the forefront and deep in the weeds of environmental policy, first as a member of the Legislature, and now on the Metropolitan King County Council, where he has made land use and environmental issues a central focus.

Hutchison is a former television anchor at KIRO whose most recent work is in leading a philanthropic foundation for the arts and sciences, and heading the board of the Seattle Symphony.

Constantine has reached out in the campaign to environmental and conservation groups as a core constituency. Hutchison has frustrated the same groups, by many accounts, with a lack of engagement so far. Her campaign has focused largely on public-safety issues and fixing the budget crisis.

In an interview, she said she is concerned about the environmental effects of a flood in the Green River Valley — not just the danger to people and property — because it will carry polluted water across the landscape.

But in a county with acute needs, she said more chronic problems such as preservation and protection of Puget Sound will get a longer-term approach.

Attention on budget

"The budget is bleeding," Hutchison said, adding her attention is fixed on "acute" needs to expand bus service, public health and human services, and public safety.

The contrast has already tipped the balance to Constantine for some. Bill Chapman is a partner at the K&L Gates law firm in Seattle, a serious mountaineer and board president of the Mountains to Sound Greenway, a nonprofit conservation group not taking a position in the race.

Personally, Chapman says, he's for Constantine because of Hutchison's lack of experience or outreach on environmental topics. Others agreed.

"It's a champion we know versus the unknown," said Cliff Traisman, lobbyist for Washington Conservation Voters. "She appears disinterested in our issues."

Constantine's campaign Web site is dense with information on his views and experience on environmental topics; Hutchison's is a blank on the subject. She skipped a key environmental forum every other candidate made early in the primary and did not return the questionnaire from the Cascade chapter of the Sierra Club. Constantine's answers stretch on for pages.

Hutchison says she's not uninterested; as executive director of the Charles Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences, she has steered money to environmental causes. But she said in an interview she is taking a cue in this campaign from voters. "As the budget crisis got bigger, it's become the biggest subject."

Critical-areas ordinance

One environmental issue has come up in the campaign: the critical-areas ordinance, a landmark land-use law passed by the County Council in 2004. Its rules included setting buffers to protect wetlands and other sensitive areas, and placing limits on forest clearing.

All counties must adopt critical-areas ordinances to comply with the state Growth Management Act.

Constantine was a chief architect of the county's law, while Hutchison is its withering critic.

Hutchison said the county had imposed a "one-size-fits-all" policy that brought great hardship to rural residents.

"We have a lot of bad policies, and the critical-areas ordinance is one of them," Hutchison said at a forum convened by the King County Bar Association in September. "We have a lot of environmental policies that are silly and cost you money. ...

"I just question the fact that my opponent is an attorney and understands the law and that he was the champion and author of our critical- areas ordinance that ... a court determined was unconstitutional and represents an illegal taking."

The state Court of Appeals in 2008 overturned one aspect of the law — not currently enforced — on a narrow basis not related to constitutional or property-rights issues.

The ordinance was also extensively revised by the council, after many hearings and hours of work by the land-use committee Constantine led to make it more flexible.

"He came out to my house and met with me and my neighbors and said, 'What does this mean to real people on the ground?' " said Terry Lavender, a Woodinville resident and longtime community activist on environmental issues. "And we don't even live in his district."

Endorsements

Constantine has the endorsement of a slew of environment groups; so far Hutchison has not earned any.

Environmental champion Jim Ellis, 88, has endorsed Hutchison, but was careful to say in an interview that it was not a blanket endorsement. He was convinced she would listen to him and treat well two things dear to his heart: the Mountains to Sound Greenway along Interstate 90, and light rail.

Ellis also said he was asked to endorse Hutchison by former Republican U.S. Sens. Slade Gorton and Dan Evans, and that he felt badly he had not endorsed a Republican candidate in three decades.

Hutchison herself has publicly not declared affiliation with any party, and the county executive is a nonpartisan position.

In interviews with The Times, other differences between the candidates' positions emerge sharply.

Hutchison dismissed opposition to the proposed expansion of the Maury Island gravel mine, the subject of years of controversy, capped by a federal judge in August sending the permits back to the feds for reconsideration. Hutchison brushed aside the conflict, calling it "a NIMBY [not in my backyard] issue, not an environmental issue."

"It's moved through all the courts and environmental review, and I support barging of sand and gravel from Maury Island," she said.

Constantine, whose district includes Maury Island, has fought the mine expansion for years and said his opposition will continue. "My opponent is wrong, and the federal judge is right: They didn't look at the science well enough and they need to back to the drawing board."

He saw not a NIMBY dispute, but "a huge environmental issue, and I'm the one who kept it that way. There are places to get sand and gravel that have less environmental impact than in sensitive areas where herring spawn and orca feed."

Constantine also saw a need for a dedicated fund at the state level to sustain a longterm effort on Puget Sound, protected from short-term budget cycles.

Hutchison said she doesn't want to go backward on the Sound and that she understands the economy and environment are linked — to a point.

"Everyone wants a clean Puget Sound, but we can't decide how much we want to spend on it. ... Our citizens' hearts are in the right place, but their pocket books have moved."

Hutchison said she can be deeply moved — even tear up — at the sight of a spawning salmon, returning home. "But I am very pragmatic.

"People's hearts are in the environmental movement but sometimes they leave their brain out of it."

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com

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