What happens in the courthouse...

Unless explicitly noted otherwise, this blog represents my own opinions, not those of any organization (like the Kittitas County Democratic Party) that I might be involved with.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Fire danger in Kittitas County III

It's hard to swing a cat in some places on the Internet without running into data on costs of fighting fires at the wildland-urban interface (WUI). Try Googling "cost of fighting urban fires," for example, and most of the top hits will be about the WUI, not fires in cities.

One item that caught my eye is a white paper from Headwaters Economics (HE), called Solutions to the Rising Costs of Fighting Fires in the Wildland-Urban Interface. HE is based in Bozeman, MT, an area with even more WUI issues than we have in Kittitas County, if that's possible.

Actually, I don't know if that statement, the one about Bozeman's WUI issues compared to ours, is really true, because Kittitas County's wildland development policies are so remarkably pro-development1 compared to other areas, and Bozeman has always seemed like a sensible place to me.

One key factor in determining WUI impacts is lot size, which determines the density of development outside of urban growth boundaries. The picture shows one example, selected mostly at random from Kittitas County's Assessor's interactive map site. This development's access road is a loop, suggesting that it at least provides firefighters and residents good access for firefighting or escape, but this post is about lot size.

The lots shown in the photo average about 3 acres in area. This is well below the 5 acre minimum allowed by Washington's Growth Management Act, which Kittitas County has been bound by since the early 1990s. Although the county agreed to the GMA, it has rarely, if ever, actually been in compliance, and we have lost repeated appeals and cases as high as the state Supreme Court.

Why would the county allow developments that are so obviously
a) illegal in light of the state GMA,
b) dangerous to firefighters and residents in the event of a fire,
c) very expensive to defend from fire (these are tax dollars we're talking about), and
d) very expensive when it comes to provision of other services?
The reasons can be complex, but they boil down to one thing: too much influence on County Commissioners by the development industry.2 We see this in the form of campaign donations and over-representation of developers on citizen's advisory committees. The makeup of citizens advisory committees is decided by the Commissioners, and there are plenty of examples where the Commissioners have denied seats to concerned citizens, or have allowed citizens with serious pro-development conflicts of interest to participate in policy making.3

All three of the sitting commissioners, including Paul Jewell who is up for reelection this year, have been involved in decisions that have led to the unusual levels of property at risk to wildfire in Kittitas County.

1We're not anti-development! The development industry is very important! But, as we have unfortunately seen with the Taylor Bridge Fire, poorly regulated development at the UWI can be expensive and heartbreaking. Thank goodness there have been no serious injuries, but that's what's at stake, in a very real way, when considering development policies.

2There is an opportunity cost to paying too much attention to keeping developers happy. In addition to increasing fire danger, it takes away from time and other resources that could be used to encourage more sustainable growth in the county's job- and tax base.

3What the development industry wants, of course, is to keep costs as low as possible. That means maximizing the number of lots that can be platted on a given acreage, minimizing infrastructure costs borne by the developer, and maximizing infrastructure costs borne by taxpayers. Kittitas County has shown considerable willingness to help in all three areas, effectively socializing costs that should instead be paid by the developers.

Monday, August 20, 2012

My favorite local natural history blog

Check out Five Acre Geographic, run by one of Kittitas County's premier amateur scientists. You'll learn, for example, that this critter is a moth, and why.

Fire danger in Kittitas County II

Some background (we'll get to the fire danger part soon): during run-up to the mortgage bubble, Kittitas county came under intense development pressure. This led to a number of hasty decisions and policy changes on the part of county government. The development boom also funneled money from real estate developers, builders, and land use attorneys into the campaigns of all sitting county commissioners; this effect on county government started late in the previous century and continues to this day.

The influence of real estate developers has had several unfortunate policy impacts, some of which, like access road requirements, increase the danger to residents and firefighters in the event of a wildfire like the one we're experiencing now. The most desirable land for development is in forested areas, but the problem extends county-wide. One example is the Tumble Creek development in Suncadia, the subject of my last post. That most expensive development in the county is served by only one county-standard access road, even though it contains (by my count) over 150 lots.

The Kittitas Count Prosecuting Attorney's Office (PAO) does more than prosecute offenders: it acts as the legal representative and advisor for county government. The PAO has repeatedly warned the County Commissioners that Kittitas County's access road policy is out of step with the policies of neighboring counties, and that this could put our county at risk of liability in the event of a large fire. Tumble Creek is out of compliance with even the most generous policies in the state, which are mostly found on the much wetter (and therefore much less fire-prone) west side of the Cascades.

Kittitas County's current policy is that a second access road is required for developments with more than 40 lots. This is 1/3 more lots than than the 30-lot limit recommended by the International Fire Code, and 2.5 times more than the very cautious requirement of 16 lots in Douglas County.

Incredibly, there is pressure from a citizen's advisory committee (which, perhaps not surprisingly, happens to be dominated by real estate developers; members of the committee must be approved by the County Commissioners) to raise the lot limit to 101 lots. In other words, a development of 100 lots would not be required to have a second access road, no matter where it was located in the county.

The PAO correctly observes that the county's existing 40-lot limit puts the county at risk, and has raised the alarm with increasing urgency in a series of memos this year. This wouldn't be necessary if the PAO weren't concerned that the County Commissioners might vote for the interests of their campaign donors, which is a rather alarming thought in the midst of a fire like the Taylor Bridge Fire.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Where the real fire danger is in Kittitas County I

The Taylor Bridge Fire is still mostly uncontrolled as I write this, and I've just read on Twitter (#taylorbridgefire) that the estimated cost of the fire as of yesterday is $2.7 million. Firefighting is very costly, and loss of property is both tragic and costly. Thank goodness there have been no serious injuries.

It's not too soon to be thinking about how our county policies and choices have put property at risk, and how things might be done differently.

Firefighting efforts primarily focus on protection of life and property, and in the case of range/forest fires it is well known that the rural-urban interface is a special problem area. It's an issue that's covered in detail by the Municipal Research and Service Center of Washington, for example.

Nowhere in the county is there more money invested, and more danger to the lives of firefighers and residents, than at the rural-urban interface that is Suncadia. It's a beautiful, troubled, spared-no-expense resort with hundreds of millions of dollars of assessed value in homes and other property. It's also surrounded by and webbed with forest around the expensive homes, golf fairways, and lodges.

And, unbelievably, Tumble Creek, the oldest, highest-value neighborhood in Suncadia, has only one road in or out.

Kittitas County allowed this neighborhood to be built in the early 2000s, and has allowed additional Suncadia phases to be built out since then, without requiring the completion of Jenkins Road, the second access road built to county standards as required by County Code and the original development agreement.1

1Note added August 24, 2012: a reader has e-mailed to tell me that 75 houses have been built in the Tumble Creek development. My understanding is that lot number is what triggers the second access road requirement, but apparently the number of houses is almost twice the 40-unit limit. Because the development was allowed to be built out of compliance with county requirements, it may be possible that the county would be liable for problems resulting from a disaster that was worsened by lack of a second road as required.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Matt Manweller's roadtrip to Olympia

With the election season upon us, I'm going to return to blogging about local political issues, at least for a while. To make things easier for everyone, here is the text of my recent letter to the editor of the Daily Record originally published August 1, ahead of the primary election in which Manweller was a candidate.

To the Editor,

In Saturday’s (July 28) Daily Record, Political Science Professor and legislative candidate Matt Manweller climbed back into the ring1 to go toe to toe with Von Ellison over her July 26 letter to the Editor (“Manweller Would Not Represent District Well”).

Indeed, Ellison landed a number of scoring punches in her letter. She noted that Manweller’s position as a tenured professor (essentially, he has a job for life unless budget cuts eliminate his position) means he is unable to relate to the challenges facing average citizens in his district. She correctly wrote that Manweller is “known for his temper and irrationality.” She also correctly observed that his extreme partisan behavior will hurt, not help, the democratic process and our district. And she pointed out that Dr. Manweller’s position on Obamacare is misguided (Dr. Manweller is not a “real” doctor, by the way).

In this latest bout, Manweller tries to land a haymaker by focusing on Obamacare. Ignoring Ellison’s legitimate points about his character and behavior, he responds by claiming that he recently traveled to Olympia, spending a “tiring day away from [his] family” to crash a legislative hearing about the effect of Obamacare on Washington State’s budget. He went, he says, so he can “cast an educated vote” for our district.

In reality, Ellison has opened cuts that won’t close.

The fact is, Manweller is already on the record as opposing Washington’s participation in Obamacare, exactly in line with the dogma of the most extremist wings of his party. Nothing he could have heard in Olympia would change his potential vote.

Mitt Romney, the author of Obamacare, refuses to release his tax returns because “people will just use them to attack.” That’s the reason Manweller went to Olympia: to get information to use in attacking Obamacare.

Take this shocking detail, from Manweller’s letter: Obamacare will increase the state's Medicaid rolls by 496,000 new people. Translation: half a million of our fellow Washingtonians who did not have health insurance, will have health insurance. Statistically, many of these people will be in our legislative district. Manweller opposes this. And yet he wants our vote.

He won’t be getting Von Ellison’s vote, and he won’t be getting mine, either.2

Steve Verhey

1The use of boxing jargon may remind the reader of the time Dr. Manweller got into a fistfight with a recently post-op cancer survivor after lying about the man's wife on Manweller's radio program. I have mentioned this incident a couple of times on this blog.
2This will hopefully be my last post about Manweller for a while. I'm annoyed to have to abandon what was once at least grudging respect for him.