Attention landowners: We wish we had better news. You may never be able to build that family home or a dig a well on your undeveloped property, thanks to a recent controversial state Supreme Court decision.
Known as the Hirst decision, the court ruled that in order for counties to comply with the Growth Management Act, they have an independent responsibility to ensure water availability for land-use decisions – instead of the Department of Ecology. In doing so, the court ignored existing water law and previous decisions, and effectively jeopardized development throughout the county and other rural areas of our state. Ecology called it: “an…enormous hardship for families that looks like it could be getting worse in the next few years.”
Despite the Legislature’s efforts to reach a solution to the high court’s decision, lawmakers adjourned after a record 193-day session without one. This has resulted in mounting uncertainty for families, counties, cities, builders, lenders and others.
So, why wasn’t a compromise reached on one of the most consequential court decisions in our state’s history? Sadly, it all came down to politics.
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We had a bipartisan striking amendment that would provide certainty to landowners while still protecting fish habitats and guaranteeing future water supply. In fact, lawmakers were enthusiastically called back to Olympia July 20, the final day of the third special session, to vote on that amendment.
But when lawmakers arrived, hopes of passing a legitimate “Hirst fix” and a strong capital budget were quickly dashed. Instead, House Democrats’ leadership caved to the political power of a few special interests who would rather have Hirst permanently take hold in rural counties.
Much has been made of the Legislature’s failure to leave Olympia without a capital budget, which has left a number of construction projects in limbo. When the Senate majority chose to negotiate the capital budget and a Hirst fix simultaneously, they did so knowing it would be unfair to administer millions in capital budget funds for the state to build its projects when thousands of families and taxpayers throughout Washington can’t enjoy the same privilege.
We, too, are frustrated local projects, school construction and improvements to our mental and behavioral health institutions have been put on hold. But let us be clear: we have had an agreed-to capital budget, one that has been contingent on a long-term Hirst fix, for months.
It’s unacceptable to let the anti-growth agenda trump the protection of basic property rights, especially those involving our most precious natural resource – water. Not to mention, it’s wholly unfair Seattle, which draws their water from basins in rural Washington, can continue to rapidly develop without regard for water availability while landowners cannot even drill a well on their private property.
House Democrats offered a “solution” that would give a 24-month reprieve for property owners currently waiting to dig a well. However, at best, their proposal is a bandage. At worst, it would have furthered the uncertainty that is currently stalling rural development. With added uncertainty, banks won’t issue loans and counties won’t issue building permits, rendering undeveloped properties totally worthless.
Unfortunately, as more time passes without a Hirst fix, the less inclined urban-centric lawmakers will be to work with rural representatives to find a solution. That is not how it should be, especially since urbanites and others with developed properties will be forced to bare the shifting tax burden as rural property values plummet without access to water.
In her dissent, Washington State Supreme Court Justice Debra Stephens said: “The majority’s decision hinges on an interpretation of RCW 19.27.097 that is unsupported by the plain language of the statute, precedent, or common sense.” It is time lawmakers exhibit some common sense and provide a solution that is fair, balanced, and provides clarity for the property owners saddled with the devastating consequences of this nonsensical court decision.
Reps. Vincent Buys and Luanne Van Werven represent the 42nd Legislative District, which includes Whatcom County except for south Bellingham.