New legislation may spare Ferry County from the financial sledgehammer of the state Growth Management Act.
County officials say they didn’t realize the law would soon be relaxed when they defied it in July before the Eastern Washington Growth Management Hearings Board.
The hearings board found the county had complied with most aspects of the law, but not the core rule to restrict urban-style development in rural areas.
But a new law that went into effect a couple weeks after the hearings board meeting may help the county avoid sanctions for not meeting the requirement.
Penalties for violating the Growth Management Act could include the withholding of state money routinely paid to the county.
Under the old law, new businesses in rural communities were limited to those that serve only the local population, such as small grocery stores or gas stations.
The Legislature this year softened that restriction, as long as most of the jobs created by the businesses go to local residents.
The change may lead to the compromise Gov. Gary Locke, county commissioners and local environmentalists all say they want.
“I think we can probably come up with a solution here in the next few months, but we need more time to work with it to actually put it all together,” County Commissioner Dennis Snook said.
The prospects for peace are clouded by a long history of bickering and personal insults among environmental activists, county officials and the conservative Ferry County Action League. The CIA and the KGB don’t accuse each other of as much skulduggery.
Still, Locke seems as eager as the commissioners to avoid a political collision that would leave no one unbruised.
“We want to do whatever else we can before we confront that situation,” said Locke spokesman Everett Billingslea, the governor’s general counsel.
Sanctions are “a near last resort,” Billingslea said. “Nothing is imminent.”
State growth management coordinator Hal Hart isn’t even talking about sanctions. He wants to tell county officials about “performance standards” he thinks could help them avoid the zoning regulations they see lurking behind growth management.
Zoning is a dirty word to many rural residents, but Hart suggested development could be allowed anywhere there are adequate utilities, fire protection, nearby school bus stops or other requirements. Developers would be encouraged economically to focus on communities that already have some of the needed infrastructure.
Curlew environmentalist Gary Woodmansee said he hopes commissioners decide they can live with the new, less restrictive rules.
Woodmansee is a leader in the five-member Concerned Friends of Ferry County, whose appeals to the regional growth board brought the county to the brink of sanctions.
The growth board has scheduled another hearing Oct. 9 on a new Concerned Friends complaint that commissioners are using their “comprehensive plan” to pull the teeth from their “critical areas plan.”
Woodmansee said the group wants any penalty against the county to be limited to a development moratorium, not loss of state money.
The Ferry County Road Department would soon be bankrupt if Locke did what his predecessor, Democrat Mike Lowry, did when Chelan County commissioners flouted the Growth Management Act.
Lowry cut off road money to Chelan County in July 1996 when commissioners openly defied growth-control measures they considered unconstitutional. Voters found two new commissioners who reopened the state pipeline six months later with promises to obey the law.
With one of the lowest property tax bases in the state, Ferry County is in no better position to resist than was Chelan County. About $2.6 million of Ferry County’s $3.6 million road fund comes from the state.
The dispute came to a head Aug. 26, when the regional growth board urged Locke to “consider” withholding some or all of the county’s share of state tax money. The move apparently was intended to add clout to the board’s Aug. 22 order that the county comply with the growth act within 90 days.
“They’ve had plenty of opportunity to come into compliance,” board member Skip Chilberg said. “We’ve been working on this case over a year.”
That’s what distinguishes Ferry County from Chelan County, Snook said.
“We’re not anything like Chelan County when they were sanctioned,” the commissioner said. “They refused to do anything, and there’s only one issue that we haven’t complied with.”
Unlike Chelan County, Ferry County voluntarily joined the growth management program.
Although the county’s population grew 21.7 percent in the past 10 years, to 7,300, the 20 percent growth threshold for mandatory participation won’t apply until the population reaches 50,000.