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Wednesday, November 17, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

The critical cultural divide in rural King County

Edwina Johnson is 71 and working as a substitute teacher in the Seattle Schools. She has no private pension. Her retirement nest egg is a half-interest in 30 acres at Preston, on the south side of I-90 — land that on Jan. 1 will become subject to King County's new Critical Areas Ordinances, under which 65 percent of it must remain undisturbed.

The property has two streams, each so small they run only in the spring. Under the ordinance, the land around these streams is to remain undisturbed.

Among environmental believers, the litany is that such sacrifices are in the public good, and that the heathens who resist them are motivated by "greed." But every piece of property is owned, most often by someone who worked for it. Johnson bought hers in 1977 at a moment of prosperity. She has been taking care of it, and paying taxes on it, ever since.

"They're taking my property for the benefit of the state," she says. "This is my retirement investment. I can't start over again. This is it."

If the government squeezes out all economic use from your land, it has to buy the land. So said the U.S. Supreme Court in 1992. In the Lucas case, South Carolina had changed the zoning on two beach lots from housing to wildlife habitat, and said the owner could not build. He demanded to be paid, and the state refused. He could have a picnic there or walk his dog, the state said, so it hadn't taken his property. The court said it had. Unless he was paid, his private assets could not be conscripted for the public good.

South Carolina took all economic use from all the property. King County will be taking all economic use from part of the property. If you have five acres or less, the county wants to make a nature preserve of half of your land; if you have 7.5 acres or more, it wants 65 percent. If you have a stream or a pond, it wants the land around that. If you already cleared your land, you're OK.

"All the people who developed their property are not affected by this," says Johnson, "but I, who kept my property in pristine condition, bear the whole weight of it."

What King County is trying to do, said attorney Sandy Mackie of Perkins Coie, at a speech Monday to Law Seminars International, is to compel the protection of habitat "to the maximum extent permissible under the Constitution" without having to pay the people who own it.

The political motivation for this did not come from the rural area. The three rural representatives on the County Council — Republicans Kathy Lambert, David Irons and Steve Hammond — voted against it, as did the three suburban Republicans. Rural people, says Hammond, "see this as imposed on them by a foreign government" — the county government based in deep-blue Seattle and dominated by urban Democrats.

There is a cultural divide.

"We have two schools of thought," says Councilwoman Lambert. "One was that man was made to use the land; that the land was meant for my dog to go to the bathroom on. The other school of thought is that the land should be natural, and that anybody who goes on it is offensive."

City people, who fastidiously follow their dogs with plastic bags for grabbing poop, will say Lambert's caricature is unfair. The regulations aim for a sustainable world, and the county has a Web page (www.metrokc.gov/mkcc/cao/index.htm) explaining how reasonable and flexible they are.

But city people, many who live in beautiful neighborhoods built on land logged off 75 years ago, are not subject to the county's Critical Areas Ordinances. Indeed, the more the rural people are harassed, the more city houses take on a scarcity value.

The rural people are fighting back. A lawsuit is being prepared by the Pacific Legal Foundation, which litigates on behalf of property owners. Activists at the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights (www.proprights.org) have filed three referendums to overturn the Critical Areas Ordinances. Under the county charter, to get a rural-areas-only vote, they need about 8,200 validated signatures. To get them, they plan a big push next Monday and Tuesday.

Lambert plans to be collecting signatures during part of the two days at the Fall City Market. Edwina Johnson plans to be out all day.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com. Look for more of his thoughts on the STOP blog, our editorial online journal at www.seattletimes.com/stop

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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