By late July, Washington state could have the most far-reaching "takings' law in the nation - one so dramatic that even zoning might require landowner compensation.


The Washington Legislature's recent approval of Initiative 164 has elated its backers.


"It is a crushing blow for big-government advocates, over-zealous state and federal bureaucrats, and cash-laden, well-heeled environmental groups who are out of touch with middle America," says Steve Appel, president of the Washington State Farm Bureau.


Ironically, well-heeled building trade groups, Realtors, timber companies and the Farm Bureau revived the initiative. It failed to gain enough support to appear on the ballot last November, but these industry groups raised $250,000 and hired people to circulate petitions once again, to bring the measure before the Legislature, as allowed by state law.


"Under the guise of helping ordinary people, this initiative was paid for by some real estate developers and land speculators who expect to make a fortune from it," says Gov. Mike Lowry. Despite Lowry's opposition, lawmakers approved I-164, and because it's a "citizens' initiative" the governor cannot veto it.


The law takes effect July 24 unless anti-initiative forces strike back. The League of Women Voters of Washington, the Washington Environmental Council, People for Puget Sound and others are trying to gather 90,000 signatures for petitions that say the initiative should go to a vote of the people next November.


I-164 prohibits the state from regulating private property or restraining land use without analyzing the economic impact, then publishing that analysis 30 days in advance. The initiative says land-use regulation is anything the government does affecting private land, other than abating a public nuisance. Public nuisance is not defined.


These provisions alone will make it prohibitively expensive to enact or enforce zoning regulations, opponents say.


The initiative also says that any land-use regulation for "public benefit" is a "takings' and requires taxpayers to compensate landowners within three months. "Takings' refers to a portion of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which says government can't take private property for public use without "just compensation."


The least restrictive land-use law must always be adopted, the initiative says, and property owners cannot be required to provide maps, studies, plans or reports used in making decisions that would restrict use of private property. So much for plat maps and real estate development plans, say those opposing the initiative.


The initiative was started by Dan Wood of Aberdeen, Wash., a former miniature-golf manager, who now directs a network of property-rights advocates under the name of the Umbrella Group. The state's Building Industry Association, two real estate PACs, Boise Cascade Corp., Plum Creek Timber Co., the Farm Bureau and others joined the group last December and provided the money that made the initiative possible.


Voters are crying for such a law, the Building Industry Association says, citing a poll that found 77 percent of the voters "agree the government has gone too far in regulating people's land."


But Miriam Graves, who represents the Washington League of Women Voters on the "Coalition on No to 164," believes the measure is so convoluted that it will force government agencies to hire more planning department employees and spark endless litigation.


"Jurisdictions could be sued for zoning and they could be sued for not zoning," Graves warns.


Lawyers in the environmental and land use section of the Washington State Bar Association recently urged the legislature not to approve the measure because it "is too poorly written and too poorly integrated with existing law."


The initiative's "takings' definition is much broader than the constitutional standard, the lawyers say, and the language regarding compensation could lead to some ludicrous situations. The government might, for example, be forced to compensate the developer of an apartment complex before requiring smoke alarms or fire exits.


The way to deal with burdensome regulations, the lawyers conclude, is to repeal burdensome laws, not pass new, ambiguous ones.


For more information, contact the League of Women Voters of Washington, 1411 Fourth Ave. Building, Suite 803, Seattle, WA 98101.


* Ken Olsen





The writer works for the Moscow-Pullman Daily News in Pullman, Washington.