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Friday, June 04, 2004 - Page updated at 10:16 A.M.
By John Healy and Ross Freeman
Loosely assembled under the flag of the "property rights" movement, opponents of the critical areas ordinance proposed by the county have diverted attention from the real point behind the regulations: Badly planned growth will destroy our rural areas. Forever.
The county's answer to this very real threat is a plan based firmly in the most modern and credible science that will accommodate growth in the rural areas while giving nature room to do its job of providing clean water and healthy wildlife habitat.
The cornerstone of the proposal, which includes a series of stream buffers, flood-control measures and aquifer protections, is a policy known as "65-10." Sixty five-ten is shorthand for a rule that allows clearing of up to 35 percent of a rural lot and the covering of up to 10 percent of a lot in impervious surfaces, a fancy term for roofs and asphalt.
The essential truth underlying 65-10 and the other elements of the plan is that the smartest and most cost-effective way to keep vital ecosystems functioning for the benefit of both humans and wildlife is to leave enough of nature untouched to do the job by itself. Put another way, replacing the water-filtration function that healthy wetlands and forests perform for our water supply would cost untold millions of dollars to build treatment plants. The same can be said of flood-control functions, or erosion control. Mother Nature simply does it better and cheaper and we have a responsibility to let her do the job.
Lost or intentionally ignored in the debate over 65-10 is the level of tax fairness and flexibility written into the regulation.
It's simply not accurate to argue that landowners are being denied economic rights by 65-10.
In the Bear Creek area near Redmond, where 65-10 has been in place for a decade, property values have increased significantly. Further, landowners who participate in the county's rural stewardship program are entitled to tax breaks for land left in native vegetation.
Virtually all common rural uses are protected in the regulations. Forestry and existing farming and grazing operations are not limited under the terms of 65-10. The county can modify the rules for public and "semi-public" uses like parks, churches, schools and public-safety facilities.
Small lots are not required to include clearing for utilities, access or septic systems toward the 35 percent clearing limit. Even the 10 percent impervious surface limit can be exceeded if storm water is percolated directly into the ground on the lot.
Another concept that gets lost in the argument over protecting ecologically critical areas is that with our right to private property comes the responsibility to treat the land carefully so as to maintain the public, common benefits of a clean environment.
Some defenders of the "property rights" argument have further diverted attention from the real issues by suggesting that rather than planning how the rural area grows, taxpayers should be asked to borrow in the bond markets to buy wild tracts equal to 65 percent of the rural area.
Leaving aside the financial absurdity of such a proposal, this approach is a scientific non-starter. Distributing the filtration capacity and flood-control functions of wetlands is essential to ensure that groundwater systems work properly. On the flip side, concentrating development pavement, roofs, parking lots in 35 percent of the rural area would overwhelm streams and rivers with polluted runoff and silty erosion and flood neighboring properties without mercy.
The King County Council and those concerned with the long-term health of all of King County should not be diverted by hysterical arguments and red-herring solutions.
The updated critical areas ordinance, including 65-10, is a strong step toward the right balance for King County. It is fair to landowners. It helps keep ecosystems functional. And it permits the uses valued by the vast majority of rural residents farming, forestry, having a house and a barn and a yard with a clean environment to enjoy.
Let's pass a strong updated critical areas ordinance so that we may pass a healthy King County to our children.
John Healy is program director with 1000 Friends of Washington, a statewide growth-management organization. Ross Freeman is staff scientist for the Northwest regional office of American Rivers, a nonprofit group that works on salmon recovery and a range of river-conservation initiatives.
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