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Know the West

Rural residents defy Washington law


Note: this feature article is one of several in a special issue about growth and planning in the West.

Some landowners in rural Washington are so sick and tired of being told what to do by one planner after another, they've decided to do something about it: Secede.

Under the banner of property rights, rebels are trying to split off from five counties in western Washington - Whatcom, King, Pierce, Thurston and Snohomish - to form new counties that would have chest-beating names such as Freedom, Liberty, Pioneer and People.

The rebels hope to avoid strict land-use regulations coming down from the state's comprehensive planning law, the 1990 Growth Management Act, which itself was a response to unprecedented growth in the 1980s.

In Whatcom County, where the battle has been fiercest, rebel leader Skip Richards says he's a former environmentalist and socialist whose conversion began when he invested in real estate. After a wetlands ordinance threatened to derail a development project in which he had invested heavily, Richards recounts, he narrowly avoided bankruptcy. That's when his politics flip-flopped; yet his rhetoric is rooted in the activism of the 1960s. He casts rural landowners as the Vietnamese of the 1990s because they are being napalmed with taxes and regulation.

"If rural landowners of Whatcom County were an ethnic minority, what the (regulators) are doing would be referred to as bigotry. The ACLU would be jumping all over their case. But since most of them are elderly white people "'Screw them!' - I think that's outrageous," says Richards.

The real estate boom has raised the stakes of zoning decisions throughout Washington. In 1986 in Whatcom County, houses sold for an average of just under $53,000. In six years, the price more than doubled to $109,000.

Washington's planning law requires counties and cities that exceed population thresholds to accomplish three tasks:

* adopt critical-areas ordinances to protect wetlands and watersheds from development;

* designate forest, mining and agricultural lands as resource areas and zone these areas to ensure productivity; and

* adopt comprehensive plans that delineate boundaries between urban and rural land uses.

Plans for half of the state's counties were due July 1; the remainder must be ready by the summer of 1995.

While the state law does not specifically require it, there is an expectation that local plans will downzone agricultural lands to decrease the number of houses that could be built. Some rural landowners fear that will diminish the value of their land.

Implementation of the state law has divided Whatcom County into urban and rural camps. Bellingham, the county seat and home of Western Washington University, tends toward environmental activism. In the rural areas outside Bellingham, landowners and developers tend to be perpetually angry at the County Planning Department. Rural interests complain about restrictive wetlands regulations, the amount of time it takes to get a building permit, and so on.

The full rebellion erupted last year, after the county council passed a watershed and wetlands protection ordinance, as required by state law. A property rights group, Coalition for Land Use Education (CLUE), mounted a successful referendum campaign led by Richards, seeking to substitute a less restrictive ordinance.

With overwhelming support from voters outside Bellingham, the CLUE ordinance passed, allowing development in many critical wetlands and helping change the composition of the county council, as antigovernment candidates got elected on its coattails.

Yet the new ordinance may violate the state's planning law. The Whatcom County prosecutor's office is challenging the referendum before the state supreme court, saying the local vote must yield to the state law. The court is expected to rule on the referendum this fall.

County attorney Randall Watts says if the court upholds the rebels, the effect of the state law will be muted. Neighboring counties and cities could end up with vastly different standards for zoning, wetlands protection and a host of other issues.

"It's a house of cards," says Watts. "The designation of critical areas is tied to the delineation of urban boundaries, which are tied into other zonings. Pretty soon the whole thing falls apart."

While CLUE's referendum campaign was in full swing, signs started appearing along roadways in northern Whatcom County asking residents to sign petitions to form Pioneer and Independence counties. The rebels' signs appeared on front lawns, billboards and the sides of semi-trailers parked on pastureland in view of Interstate 5, asserting that secession is "Our Hope for the Future."

According to the state's constitution, a majority of registered voters in a newly proposed county can petition the legislature for recognition. If the legislature determines that there is a viable tax base and decides in the petitioners' favor, a new county is designated, and the assets and debts of the original county are divided proportionally.

A new county might not have to abide by the Growth Management Act if its population falls under the law's threshold. Organizers of the secession movements in Whatcom County deny they want to avoid the stipulations of the state law, but say they do want more local control over land-use regulations.

Secessionist movements have sprung up in four other counties nearby, amid allegations the secessionists are funded at least in part by wealthy real estate developers who target rural areas.