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KITTITAS COUNTY GROWTH MANAGEMENT

Futurewise, KCC and RIDGE Raise Stakes in Growth Management Case
by Doug Kilgore

Conservation partners, RIDGE, Kittitas County Conservation and Futurewise are ratcheting pressure on Kittitas County to fix its Comprehensive plan and Planning Regulations. Building on the 2007 Eastern Washington Growth Board victory that agreed with conservation groups and slammed Kittitas County Commissioners, the trio have filed an additional GMA appeal of County Development regulations which were recently revised without consideration of the Growth Board’s previous decision. That decision, penned by former State Senator Joyce Mullikan, found many Comprehensive Plan provisions and Development Regulations out of line with the Growth Management Act (GMA). Among offending features were rules and policies allowing urban development in rural, agricultural, and forest zones and those allowing developers to harm water resources by building multiple adjacent subdivisions- each supplied by its own exempt well. The County appealed those key portions of the Growth Board’s ruling and that appeal is now before the Eastern Washington Appeals Court. While the County and the conservation groups go through an appeals process the County has continued to rely on the existing rules and is able to approve projects that would otherwise not be permitted. The current action asks the Growth Board invalidate the defective rules.

In the summer and fall of 2006, citizens from across Kittitas County joined in an effort to have the County’s Comprehensive Plan updated to be consistent with state law. Citizens sought protection of rural, agricultural and forest lands and sought an end to County planning policies that enabled so many new subdivisions and urban growth areas around the County. Two upper county groups, RIDGE and Kittitas County Conservation, together as well as the statewide smart growth advocates, Futurewise worked together to prepare testimony and to mobilize concerned residents to attend hearings of the Planning Commission and the Board of Commissioners. While the Planning Commission recommended adoption of many of the suggested reforms, the Board of Commissioners listened only to developers and refused to make any meaningful reform of the County Comprehensive Plan and Development Regulations.

The nature of the rules setting the minimum lot size in the rural and agricultural zone is probably the most significant issue up for decision in the appeal. Conservation groups and the Growth Board believe that the law sets a 5-acre minimum lot size. The County and developers believe they should be allowed to continue the current 3-acre minimum. Another key issue concerns the impact on water resources caused by small-lot subdivisions approved in rural areas. Currently a single landowner can apply for multiple adjacent projects on a single piece of land, and supply each group of six or so lots with water from a single exempt well. With that many "straws" sucking precious water adjacent landowners run the risk of dry wells. Also small cities like Roslyn face restrictions and cut-offs in dry years when Yakima Basin irrigators with senior water rights claim priority.

The current comprehensive plan allows almost any type of development to occur in Kittitas County, as long as a majority of Commissioners approve it. The Growth Board agreed with Conservation Groups that more specific policies must be adopted to protect water resources, rural areas and working farms and forests. This was recently confirmed by a State Supreme Court ruling that affirmed approval of a 3-acre subdivision in the rural zone. This ruling was interpreted in the press as "affirming the 3-acre rule", but it actually only affirmed the right of Commissioners to make decisions according to County rules- rules that currently allow the small lots. The Court pointed out that it is up to the Growth Board to decide if the rules meet the standards of the GMA. The Growth Board subsequently ruled that the 3-acre lots were too small, and that decision is what is now moving through the courts.

While it is not certain when the Appeals Court will hear the case it is likely that we will see a decision sometime in 2009.