November 18, 2004

Burning Down The Cause

Let it be said that I understand why any government might be tight-fisted, but there are times when that attitude is exceptionally inappropriate. An article in today's Seattle Times entitled The critical cultural divide in rural King County gives an example of one of those times:

Edwina Johnson is 71 and working as a substitute teacher in the Seattle Schools. She has no private pension. Her retirement nest egg is a half-interest in 30 acres at Preston, on the south side of I-90 land that on Jan. 1 will become subject to King County's new Critical Areas Ordinances, under which 65 percent of it must remain undisturbed.

The property has two streams, each so small they run only in the spring. Under the ordinance, the land around these streams is to remain undisturbed. ...

I can understand the rationale for this ordinance, and I support it. The waterways in King County are seriously threatened, many of them can no longer support the levels of fish and game that they could only a few decades ago.

Suburban sprawl is choking them with construction runoff, they're contaminated by fertilizer runoff from gardens and auto fluid runoff from concrete and asphalt. All the street drains around the area pour directly into the local waterways that criss-cross the big watersheds we've all settled on. Instead of rainwater soaking into soil and filtering out to the streams and rivers, all the junk runs right off the hard surfaces of modern life into open water.

Making matters worse, the water in those streams isn't just being spoiled with contamination and debris, but with heat. Water holds more oxygen when it's cold, less when it's warm. This is why many of the richest ocean habitats are in cold near-polar waters, because it's easier for aquatic life to catch a breath there. Runoff from streets is already warmer when it hits the streams than it should be. Following that up with clearing shady trees and greenery away from stream banks adds some extra sunlight and gives the water no chance to cool, making it less habitable for fish. And I think we can all agree that it would be a shame if wild salmon were no longer able to survive here.

But there's a right way to protect these vital habitats, and a wrong way.

..."All the people who developed their property are not affected by this," says Johnson, "but I, who kept my property in pristine condition, bear the whole weight of it."

What King County is trying to do, said attorney Sandy Mackie of Perkins Coie, at a speech Monday to Law Seminars International, is to compel the protection of habitat "to the maximum extent permissible under the Constitution" without having to pay the people who own it.

The political motivation for this did not come from the rural area. The three rural representatives on the County Council Republicans Kathy Lambert, David Irons and Steve Hammond voted against it, as did the three suburban Republicans. Rural people, says Hammond, "see this as imposed on them by a foreign government" the county government based in deep-blue Seattle and dominated by urban Democrats.

There is a cultural divide. ...

Cultural divide, my ***. This is an economic issue, with a cash-strapped county government attempting virtue on the cheap. And it's also an ideological issue, with Republicans against it in all likelihood because they love nothing better than sticking it the natural world. But refusing to reimburse private landowners makes it all the more difficult to take the necessary steps to save local habitat in the future.

Now the government (federal, state, local) grabs private land all the time for various civic projects. No neighborhood wants to find out that a big swathe of their houses are going to be ed for the new freeway. My grandmother had a piece of property on the outskirts of a growing town in the flat, deserty middle of California that became the proud resting place of a portion of new drainage ditch. People get irritated about these things, they gripe about getting compensated for only a portion of the property value, and most people get over it. Then they drive on the new freeway, and they're glad next time it rains that there was that handy extra drainage ditch around town to keep their house above water.

However the public has yet to be fully convinced of the value of habitat preservation, and even if they were convinced of it, you don't do it on the backs of 71 year old substitute teachers. In fact, I can think of few goals no matter how noble that ought to be done on the backs of 71 year old substitute teachers. And again, I say this as someone who adamantly supports these kinds of habitat preservation measures, because frankly there isn't that much left to work with.

This is too important an issue to be handled in a ham-handed fashion that builds up resentment and fails to compensate property owners. This deserves at the very least the sort of compensation plan that would be set up for the unlucky homeowner whose private castle has a destiny as the underpinnings of a new onramp for the I-5.

And it isn't a cultural divide. If this was being done to someone in the "deep blue Seattle" area, that person and their neighbors would be irate. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find any significant number of local urbanites who think it's either fair or right to wiggle out of compensating the affected landowners, it's just that they probably won't hear much about it.

Which is the point. Governments pinch pennies wherever they think it won't be noticed, it's universal. Culture has got jack-all to do with it, and I can say that as someone who's so blue I'm verging on indigo.*

I'd like to ask readers who are King County residents to write the King County Council and insist that they fairly compensate landholders whose land has been determined to be critical habitat. Especially if you support preserving our local environment. This is too important an issue to do it wrong.

* Bloody color metaphors. Did I sign up somewhere to be known as a 'blue'? I can tell you, I did not.

Posted by natasha at November 18, 2004 12:22 AM | Environment | Technorati links |

...this is exactly the sort of thing that resulted in passage of Measure 37 here in Oregon (and was actually passed in a different form a few years ago but was found unconstitutional by the state Supremes on a technical point). It requires compensation for land owners who have lost property value because of land use management decisions or modification of the land use laws to allow the desired use. It's an over-reaching law that leans too far in the direction of developers at the expense of the protection of zoned agricultural and forest land and wetlands and streamside zones and such, but there were simply too many parables of property owners trapped by unbending ordinances and perhaps overzealous application of land use laws to really allow a clear view of the true potential ramifications of the law. There probably was an opportunity at some point between the first and second passage for the various players to get together and reach an accord that would have worked better, but nobody likes to play that way anymore...

Posted by: Jack K. at November 18, 2004 08:40 AM

I should have known Jack would get here first ;-)

Never-the-less, though my support for Measure 37 was geared more towards the loss of the wide open spaces I've enjoyed here all of my life, and the subsequent economic losses many I have known for the past fifty years have suffered - notable the loss of twenty acres of four generations' pastureland to a freeway overpass at twenty percent of its overall value - I do believe that this "case" really speaks to the alturistic intent of Measure 37.

Posted by: Thomas Ware at November 18, 2004 08:06 PM

We can't compensate these landowners. It would put us on a slippery slope. Compensating landowners would be admitting that zoning is equivalent to a "taking" by the government. Admit that anywhere, and zoning will be eroded everywhere eventually. Imagine a land with no zoning -- and that means no zoning restrictions: unmitigated sprawl and inappropriate (but extremely profitable) land uses would crop up everywhere the market would support them.

Furthermore, how is it fair to compensate someone for development rights they may never have exercised? Why does failed speculation in real estate deserve a reward? With local governments already strapped for cash, exactly which other programs should be cut (or taxes raised) to fund this compensation?

Posted by: Scott M. at November 18, 2004 11:50 PM

There isn't any way that we could afford to protect all the land that ought to be. However, this is an excellent example of land that should be bought by conservation groups.

One of the downsides of simplistic property use laws is that it often hurts people with good intentions worse than others.

There's an excellent discussion on Measure 37 on the Cascaida Scorecard page that really is an enlightened perspective though I don't want to accept it as one just yet:)

Posted by: Andy at November 19, 2004 11:28 AM

Yes, it would be nice to pay the landowner and get a clear title to some uses of the land. But that would be paying blackmailers. The fact is we already have the right to regulate activities. Start greasing every squeaky wheel with greenbacks and there's not telling where it will end.

The fact is that these landowners hoped they could subdivide and sell their land and stick us with the bill for the services we'd need to provide to keep their subdivision from becoming a poisonous slum.

Others are whining about wanting to do inappropriate stuff, like clearing land to build a riding arena. For heaven's sakes, south King County has plenty of cleared land for those purposes. Forty years ago we banned non-water-related uses from the shoreline and it's one of the best things we've ever done. Now it's time to say no more cutting when there's lots of cleared land on the market.

Is that a darned shame that people thought we'd keep building freeways and county roads forever and land hoarding was like a free ride on the government development machine? Not in my book, and the only retirement fund I have is five acres and a mobile.

In practical terms the best way to offer any relief financially is through tax abatements.

However, the simple fact is that land speculation is risky. Banks won't loan on it. Society as a whole can't afford to become the rich uncle for everybody who thought they'd make a million by investing in land.

Posted by: serial catowner at November 19, 2004 03:58 PM