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Bill aimed at helping rural land owners fails to pass key committee

Washington State’s capitol building
Washington State’s capitol building The Olympian

A bill aimed at rewriting Washington state’s water law to help homebuilders in rural Whatcom County and elsewhere failed to pass a key House Committee Wednesday, but lawmakers say the fight is not over.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, said the effort to save household wells in the state will continue, despite a decision by the House Agriculture and Natural Resource Committee to take no action on the bill.

The legislation would roll back last year’s state Supreme Court decision that effectively prevented many rural landowners from getting rights to drill a well. Although the state Supreme Court ruling involved a Whatcom County case, it has statewide implications, pitting property rights advocates against tribes and environmental groups.

Wednesday was the deadline for House and Senate policy committees to pass bills introduced in the opposite chamber. The bill already had passed the Senate.

“I am disappointed the House agriculture committee failed to take a vote and advance the bill further in the process, but that doesn’t mean the issue is dead,” Ericksen said in a news release. “I will be continuing to work to correct the court’s misguided decision in this case. While I am happy to look for compromise, the ultimate solution cannot violate the fundamental rights of property owners.”

Several similar proposals by Rep. Vincent Buys, R-Lynden, also died in committee.

Ericksen, a supporter of Senate Bill 5239, said lawmakers will continue to seek a compromise bill before the Washington Legislature adjourns for the year. The bill still could be revived by House leadership or if the Legislature goes into special session.

Ag Committee Chairman Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, who has called the Supreme Court decision “problematic,” said at the conclusion of Wednesday’s committee hearing that he also would work on consensus legislation.

Background

Last October, a divided state Supreme Court said counties must comply with the Growth Management Act and make an independent decision about whether enough water was available before approving a building permit for a project that needed a new well for water.

Before what’s known as the Hirst decision, many counties relied on state Department of Ecology assessments of whether water was available, so well permits were easier to obtain.

The case pitted Whatcom County against the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board, which argued that the county had allowed so-called exempt wells – meaning property owners didn’t need a water right for withdrawals as long as they used less than 5,000 gallons of water a day – in stream basins that had been closed to new water rights applications.

The state Supreme Court sided with the Growth Management Hearings Board, essentially stopping new development in many rural areas.

On March 7, the Whatcom County Council extended its restriction on new rural developments that rely on domestic wells for another six weeks. Meanwhile, council members are looking to provide what relief they can to those property owners who already were in the process of building their homes when the Supreme Court’s decision led the council to halt rural developments affected by the ruling.

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