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Wednesday, August 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

County's environmental forces losing strength

By Emily Heffter
Times Snohomish County bureau

John Mauro, the smart-growth director for the Pilchuck Audubon Society, checks out property at Island Crossing, the Arlington-area subject of a long battle over development.
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The last time Snohomish County leaders considered how to protect the county's most environmentally sensitive areas, more than 150 people testified before the County Council over 18 hours of hearings.

At those hearings in 1994, some paid lobbyists and developers argued that the council should protect their property rights by easing environmental restrictions, but for the most part, they lost to conservationists and anti-sprawl activists who had the ear of the then-Democrat-controlled council.

Today, as the council prepares to review those decade-old environmental policies, activism is on the decline. Liberal activists expect to be less involved and to have less impact than in years past. That, they say, endangers the environment.

Since a Republican council took over in 2002 for the first time in 10 years, a few environmental and smart-growth activists have gone on the offensive, filing multiple appeals to the County Council's land-use decisions.

But in the hearings before those decisions are made, vocal residents and activists for environmental issues don't turn out, at least not in large numbers.

"We're spending less time at council meetings because they're so closed to actually changing their minds," said Aaron Ostrom, the executive director of 1000 Friends of Washington. "There is some question about how much of your resources do you spend beating your head on the wall."

Undoing restrictions

The Republican council has been aggressive over the past two years about undoing development restrictions that previous councils put in place. Members even have sought out landowners who had tried previously to get developments approved and told them to try again; many have, with success.

South Snohomish County residents won a hard-fought victory in May 2001 when the Democrat-led council agreed to increase restrictions on planned residential developments, a type of subdivision.

Residents got involved en masse. They joined a task force to study different proposals and advise county leaders, and the council agreed with their recommendation in a 3-2 vote.

Less than three years later, the Republican council voted to reverse the task force's work, restoring the original guidelines for the developments. That change was part of a package of changes designed to stimulate the county's economy.

Around the same time, the council increased the fee for filing a land-use appeal, stopped accepting last-minute public comment on new developments and decreased the environmental review required on some office buildings, condominiums and apartments.

That's the kind of thing that frustrates residents who champion environmental causes, leaders of advocacy groups say. The reason fewer people speak out at meetings isn't a decline in environmentalism, they say, but a general feeling among liberal activists that the conservative council won't listen to them.

Council leaders say conservationists and anti-sprawl watchdogs grew accustomed to too much power while Democrats controlled the council. Now, builders and developers get a fair hearing, they say.

"I think they had a council here previously that was unfriendly to growth," said council Chairman John Koster, R-Arlington. "I think it was unbalanced the other way. But I really believe that this council is more balanced."

Koster alluded to a silent standoff that County Councilman Jeff Sax, R-Snohomish, also mentioned: Environmental activists complain about the council's policies, but they don't call or write, don't make appointments to talk, don't offer to compromise.

"They haven't darkened my doorway," Koster said.

With Three Fingers Mountain in the distance, this cornfield in the Island Crossing area near Arlington may have a car lot as a neighbor if developers are allowed to build it.

Citizens groups say the same thing about the council members.

That's just the point, said former Councilman Dave Somers, a Democrat and fisheries biologist who lost to Sax in 2001.

"People pretty much feel like this council is not going to listen to them anyway," he said. "They've already made up their minds."

County Executive Aaron Reardon, who meets once a month with environmentalists, agreed.

"The environmental groups that I've spoken with feel like, why bother, because they're not being heard," said Reardon, a Democrat. "They're not being listened to."

Dwindling numbers

The decline in activism has been prompted, however, by more than just a political change. Several formerly prominent groups have faced waning membership.

"I think there's fewer people at hearings, and I think one of [the reasons] is just, you know, people get worn out," said Councilman Dave Gossett, D-Mountlake Terrace, who frequently disagrees with the rest of the council on land-use votes.

New activists came out in droves during the county's land-use battles of the 1990s, when the county was implementing the state Growth Management Act and grappling with heavy residential growth. It's a cycle, Gossett said, and now they're taking a break.

"[The Pilchuck Audubon Society] has been struggling for years with an aging membership, and I think that's part of the problem," said Kathy Johnson, the group's forest-practices-committee chairwoman.

After an important leader retired a couple of years ago, the local Sierra Club is reorganizing, group Chairwoman Diana Phillips said.

Though those organizations are optimistic about making changes, activists who have stayed involved say they are frustrated.

"The council's been openly abusive to people in hearings," Somers said.

"I think one of the worst things that some of the county councilmen have picked up on ... is this mudslinging," said Kristin Kelly, the Snohomish County organizer for 1000 Friends of Washington. "It's hugely damaging."

Kelly is one of the few activists who still testify regularly before the council. She speaks at the lectern to councilmen who sometimes read or whisper to each other during her testimony. Sometimes a councilman will stop her and disagree with her on a point. Koster said that as chairman, he can't sit back and let "erroneous" testimony go unchecked. When council members ask a lot of questions, Sax said, they're trying to make sure the testimony creates a complete record.

"We're making sure that they know what they're talking about," he said.

But Kelly said she feels like she is being interrogated.

"I am less inclined to get up and talk," she said. "It really doesn't do any good."

John Mauro, the smart-growth director of Pilchuck Audubon Society, agreed. As a member of a nonprofit group, he looks for the most efficient way to get things done.

"It's inefficient to go through the council," he said.

"Agenda" problems

Part of the problem is environmentalists' message, said Mike Pattison, a lobbyist for the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties.

"It's been a long time since I've seen the environmental community come to the county ... with a proactive agenda at all," he said.

Koster agreed: Environmentalists are always against something, he said.

In the Critical Area Review, the county's debate over environmental policies, Kelly argues that the county should base its policies on state Department of Ecology scientific guidelines. Pattison and other developers and builders believe the Ecology guidelines are too restrictive, but Kelly's group won't budge, Pattison said. He assumes the council will disagree with environmental activists and then get sued.

"Their involvement has declined and why? ... I think they've changed tactics," Pattison said. "Instead of fighting their battles in the legislative arena, they've taken their ball, gone home and said, 'We'll meet you in court.' "

Council leaders frequently criticize Kelly for her costly land-use appeals, but Kelly points out that she nearly always wins.

The county expects to start hearings on the critical-area update this fall. The council spent $250,000 — all the money budgeted for the review — to hire a consultant, but the consultant didn't finish the process. County staff members are finishing the work, which will determine how to protect environmentally sensitive areas.

Sax said he believes the council will get all sides on the critical-

areas update because it's so important.

"I think the previous council kind of had a group of growth junkies. ... They were basically given carte blanche to speak at public hearings as long as they wanted to speak," Sax said. "I think we took some of the fun out of it."

Emily Heffter: 425-783-0624 or

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