Unlike Thurston County, Chelan County didn’t slide quietly into compliance with the state’s Growth Management Act, and defiance has cost this Central Washington county a bundle.
Gov. Mike Lowry sanctioned Chelan County in July for repeatedly failing to comply with the state law that requires a 20-year plan stating where urban growth can and can’t occur. Lowry’s action costs the county nearly $140,000 a month in tax revenues.
Add to that $100,000 in legal fees the county has rung up trying to fight the law’s constitutionality in state and federal courts.
Chelan’s days of resistance may be numbered.
One of two county commissioners determined to buck the law lost his seat to a pro-growth management candidate in September, turning the tide toward compliance.
A three-member commission that was 2-1 against the law will become 2-1 in favor next year.
Most likely, a county official says, the lawsuit will be dropped. The land-use plans left simmering during the years-long dispute will be adopted. Chelan will get the money plus interest currently being withheld by the state.
Chelan’s struggles with GMA are rooted in the county’s long agricultural history. Fruit crops first planted in the 1880s have grown into thousands of lucrative acres of apples, pears and cherries.
The last 20 years have seen rapid growth, with nearly 20,000 new residents boosting the population to about 60,000.
John Wall, the commissioner who lost to a pro-GMA candidate, said the law robs people of private property rights. “Economics should dictate development or no development,” he said.
Earl Marcellus - soon to be the lone anti-GMA commissioner agreed. “We shouldn’t have a law that unjustly intrudes on private property rights,” he said.
Chelan - the state’s third-largest county geographically - fell under the growth management act in 1990, the same year the law was passed by the Legislature.
The county put off the planning process until 1993, when commissioners finally appointed committees to draft land-use policies for farm and forest lands, mining and critical areas, said John Harrington, county planning director.
The committees spent months drafting the policies, only to have them rewritten by the commissioners before adoption, Harrington said.
For example, one committee recommended a 40-acre minimum for forested lands. Commissioners changed that to 1 acre.
Marcellus said environmentalists tried to use the regulations to take away individual property rights.
Thirteen entities - including the state GMA office appealed the comprehensive land-use plan finally adopted by commissioners. The regional growth management hearings board ruled the plan invalid and sent it back for redrafting.
Marcellus and Wall hired an attorney to fight the law in 1995. Two hearings - one in U.S. District Court and one before the state Supreme Court - are planned in January.
The lawsuits challenge the governor’s right to sanction the county. They also challenge the law’s constitutionality, arguing that growth management - particularly the hearings boards - takes power away from cities and counties.
Steve Wells, who oversees GMA for the state, considers that argument ironic.
“(Commissioners) rejected their own advisory committee’s works, then adopted an alternative with no subsequent public hearing,” Wells said. “I’m curious at how this has been turned around to be the imposition of the heavy hand of the state.”
The commissioners’ costly legal fight and continued defiance prompted orchardist Dick Rieman and others to mount a successful campaign to oust Wall from office.
Pro-GMA candidate Esther Stefaniw will take Wall’s place next year. Attempts to reach Stefaniw and Jim Lynch - also newly elected and pro-
GMA were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, the county’s planning commission has been working on new plans that could be adopted early next year.
“The word is, the new commissioners won’t support challenging the Growth Management Act,” said Planning Director Harrington. “They support going ahead with implementing the plans here.”
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