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Monday, October 29, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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It's growth control vs. freer use of the land

Seattle Times Snohomish County reporter

Jeff Sax's opening volley in his campaign for the Snohomish County Council was striking: He called his opponent, council Chairman Dave Somers, a "committed socialist" who wants to see all land under public control.

Sax, 39, has backed off that earlier characterization of Somers, a fisheries ecologist and a budding leader in regional government.

"It was probably extreme," said the Republican challenger, adding he didn't write that April fund-raising letter. "I just signed it."

Somers, 48, is not in a forgiving mood as he fights to keep his District 5 council seat, representing the county's southeastern cities and communities.

"I don't sign anything I don't believe in," said Somers, a Monroe-area Democrat who was elected in 1997.

Voters face a clear choice between Somers, a proponent of growth control and development limits, and Sax, who thinks the county should claim more local authority over land use and thumb its nose at the state Growth Management Act and federal Endangered Species Act. A Libertarian candidate, Don Polson of Monroe, is also in the race.

District 5 residents are unpredictable, however, and many people seem unsure how they'll vote Nov. 6.

Eight years ago voters tossed out liberal environmentalist Councilman Peter Hurley, replacing him with R.C. "Swede" Johnson, a fervent supporter of property rights and a favorite of the real-estate and development industries. Then in 1997, voters replaced Johnson with Somers, who promised to manage growth and make sure new developments — not taxpayers — pay for the county's growth-related costs.

Since then, Somers has voted to tighten development rules for high-density residential projects and to lift a cap on residential-development fees to pay for new classrooms and schools. If re-elected, he wants to raise road-mitigation fees as well, for the first time in 10 years.

Sax hopes the pendulum will swing again next month, this time in his favor.

"I believe less government is better" he says. "I believe 95 percent of the people will do the right thing most of the time."

By targeting laws at the other 5 percent, Sax says, the County Council has harmed the innocent majority, taking away people's property rights and making development and housing too costly.

Judging by the candidates' state public-disclosure records, developers are rooting for Sax. More than $59,000 of his $79,000 campaign chest comes from the real-estate, development and timber industries.

Somers has collected about $52,000, including at least $8,000 from environmental groups and conservation leaders, $4,400 from labor unions, about $2,000 from development and timber groups, and $1,500 from tribal interests. About half his campaign money consists of individual donations of $200 or less.

Sax, a mechanical engineer, gave up his job in the air-pollution-control business to run for County Council. He's doorbelled about 14,000 homes, he says, discovering a great deal of disenchantment with county government. Rural residents think the county's attention is focused on cities and towns, he says, and they feel unsafe because the Sheriff's Office is understaffed.

Earlier in his campaign, Sax called for adding 220 deputies over the next five years. Now he's dropped that figure to 47.5 new deputies, matching Sheriff Rick Bart's latest budget request.

Sax says he got into politics after he and his father-in-law ran into a development nightmare trying to subdivide 10 acres in the Machias area near Lake Stevens. Nearly half the acreage is wetlands, and the former owner didn't tell them about a state-imposed development moratorium relating to logging, so the two-lot subdivision has cost them $62,000 in consultant work and county fees.

Sax believes the county should use its Conservation Futures money, collected through a voter-approved property tax, to buy wetlands and buffers from property owners who are prohibited from developing the land. Instead, he says, the county spends that money buying useless "swamps."

Since 1989, about $40 million in Conservation Futures revenue has been used to buy more than 2,500 acres of parks, trails and open space, including some wetlands and salmon habitat, according to the county.

"As long as we don't have adequate deputies, adequate sewers, adequate roads, a viable business climate, we shouldn't be buying parks," says Sax.

The County Council should fully fund its Sheriff's Office, build needed roads and attend to other local needs before it spends money on growth management or salmon protection, he says. If the state tried to punish the county by withholding grants and tax revenues, residents would make such an uproar that the Legislature would be forced to change the laws, he argues.

That's absurd, says Somers.

When Chelan County tried that in 1996, refusing to comply with portions of the Growth Management Act and filing lawsuits against the state, then-Gov. Mike Lowry cut off the county's $140,000-a-month funding for roads. Voters responded by throwing two county commissioners out of office, replacing them with commissioners who respected the state act.

"If we work together, we can have it all," Somers says. "We can comply with the Endangered Species Act, we can have homes, we can have jobs, we can have a healthy environment and salmon. And it will cost a heck of a lot less than going to federal court and paying a bunch of attorneys."

Somers is on the executive board of the Puget Sound Regional Council, chairs the council's growth-management-policy board and is a leader in a three-county salmon-protection plan.

Transportation sits at the top of Somers' list of county issues. The regional council just passed a 30-year transportation plan and now must persuade the Legislature to create funding for it, he says.

In addition, he argues, developers must start paying a fair share of road-construction costs. Transportation mitigation fees now cover only 30 percent of those expenses, he says.

The county's development codes need to be streamlined to make them easier to understand and use, Somers says.

"Having complex and difficult codes doesn't help anybody," he says. "We can accomplish our environmental-protection goals and our quality-of-life goals without having a stupid regulatory process."

Diane Brooks can be reached at 206-464-2567.

Clarification: Information in this article, originally published October 29, was clarified October 31. Jeff Sax, a candidate in the Snohomish County Council District 5 race, wants the county to make an immediate commitment to hiring 47.5 deputies and to begin setting aside money in the 2002 budget for their hiring. It would probably take two to three years to bring those deputies on board, he said.

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