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Monday, March 19, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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James Vesely / Times staff columnist

Classic Seattle overhang and the cross we carry

Times editorial page editor

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If you ever wish to feel a ton of bricks fall on you, I recommend you pick a fight with the Catholic Church.

This page disagrees - fundamentally and profoundly - with the Archdiocese of Seattle over a question of land use. And to be fair, we also disagree with the Mormons, plus other denominations and religions about the same thing.

To be fairer, I characterize our disagreement as a question of land use but the Archdiocese sees it differently, as an issue of freedom. Here's what it's all about:

The churches want an exemption to the area's limits on growth into rural areas to allow them to put houses of worship and schools where development normally does not go. So strongly does the Archdiocese feel about the issue, it has taken its case to the King County Council, the state Legislature and to both Seattle dailies, where Archbishop Alexander J. Brunett made a strong case in print why we're all wet. Brunett's forceful essay ("Catholic Church will protect rights, environment," Times, March 7) says that by limiting the growth of churches into rural areas, the policy is "placing a burden on our right to worship freely."

Powerful words, throwing open new doors in the debate over growth and sprawl.

Gary Makowski of Bellevue makes an equally blunt case. He's active in interdenominational work done by churches and synagogues in Bellevue's Crossroads neighborhood. In May, the many faiths of Crossroads will sponsor "Congregations for the Homeless." Makowski interprets King County's stubbornness on church expansion as harmful to taxpayers and, ultimately, greedy.

Makowski makes the point that church schools reduce the tax burdens of the state and the lack of them throughout the county only adds to the state's need to build public schools.

I'm thinking, is our opposition to the archbishop's point of view a classic case of Seattle overhang? That's the disease that rapidly infests editorial offices and gives us in these towers the eyesight to see things only from under Seattle's roof.

Seattle overhang casts a long shadow. It also blurs the horizon so that Eastern King County looks a lot different from Seattle than it does when you get there. From Seattle, somewhere just the other side of Bellevue the trees begin and those miles of rolling greenery are not someone else's property but places of common, public stewardship. Classic Seattle overhang says the farmlands and forests of rural King County are part of a natural environment that constitutes a regional ethic. I've used those exact words myself to describe the public's overwhelming support for some kind of limits to urban growth.

But Archbishop Brunett's message and the thoughts of active interfaith volunteers like Makowski say our limits on growth are also limiting the growth and sustenance of our spiritual life.

That spiritual life is being backed up by some of the finest lawyers and lobbyists in the country. The Church of Jesus Christ of Later-day Saints has expressed an interest in a church, gym and genealogical center in the rural Sammamish Valley; its lawyers sent the County Council a six-page analysis of the issues. The thrust of the argument is that maintaining the rural character of a region does not meet the compelling-interest test needed to limit church sizes.

But maintaining rural character is one of the pillars of the Seattle overhang. Keeping places rural is what all the fuss over growth management has been about for the past 10 years. That's why the majority of voters in this region have accepted higher land prices, more crowding and more traffic. If they didn't get squeezed to keep the farms there and the country roads country, what did they do it for? If, as the church lawyers suggest, growth management doesn't apply to them, faith of a different sort, faith in what the region can be, begins to disappear.

In "The Regional City," Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton remind us that in Sinclair Lewis' "Main Street," a person could walk the entire town of Gopher Prairie in 32 minutes. That's about the drive time from Seattle to the outer limits of the urban line in light traffic. Where once we could walk to see the open prairie in less than an hour, we can still do it by car in the same time.

There are a lot of problems with growth management and the view of it from under the Seattle overhang, but I don't think the desire to keep rural character within reach is one of them.

James Vesely's column appears Mondays. His e-mail address is: jvesely@seattletimes.com.

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