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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Saturday, December 5, 2015

Response to Daily Record Editorial about professional land use decisions

A couple of days before my letter (see next post, below) appeared in the Daily Record, the paper published an editorial called County not yet ready for big change. There isn't a way to make comments on the editorial at the Daily Record's website, so I'll make some here.

I hadn't really made the connection between the idea of a county executive form of government and the vote on using an expert to make final land use decisions, but the editorial raises this idea. It is an idea that has been floating around since at least the 1990s.

The thesis of the editorial is that the county commissioners worked very hard to deal with the well moratorium, and wasn't directly responsible for muffing the marijuana issue, so our system of county government -- which dates from 1889 -- is still worth maintaining.

The problem is, the editorial seems to be an attempt to rewrite history, or at least isn't looking back far enough in history.

The fact is, the Board of County Commissioners of the time was directly responsible for a series of expensive blunders that have us led to the point that large parts of the county have no access to ground water. To be fair, only Paul Jewell's term overlapped with the period where the worst mistakes were made, but the mistakes did result from the lack of an expert, professional approach to water- and land-use issues. Smarter citizens than I have tried to figure out how much taxpayer money has been spent on legal fees as a result, but it was a lot.

Anyway, the fact remains that a different response from the Board of County Commissioners at the time very likely would have led to a different outcome with respect to groundwater and the county red zones. I wrote about this in a blog post on July 12, 2010. Here's a link to the whole post, and here's a link to the key section.

Here I'm focusing only on water, but the way the Board of County Commissioners ignored the Growth Management Act was also a significant problem, and is another example of where an expert, professional approach would have made a difference.

My hat is off to Commissioner O'Brien

Published in the Ellensburg Daily Record, Dec. 5, 2015

To the Editor:

Having twice run against Obie O’Brien for County Commissioner, I pay special attention when I agree with one of his votes.

This actually happens fairly often, and the latest example is his support for changing county government to have a professionally trained hearing examiner make objective, non-political decisions about land use issues. Commissioner Berndt reluctantly voted against the idea, noting that land-use decisions can be very complex and that he worries about “doing harm to the people of the county through a lack of knowledge.”

Only Commissioner Jewell was solidly against the change. A Daily Record story about the decision paraphrased his reasoning: “having an expert make the final decision would be un-American.” He went on to note that he was unwilling to give up the power to rule on such decisions.

There is an important connection between this issue and the recent changes to county water rules. The unfortunate story of Ron Slater and his property east of Ellensburg is but one example. In the development-happy 1990s and 2000s, Mr. Slater was assured by the county that his planned development would have access to water.

Unfortunately, during that same time the Board of County Commissioners was engaged in ignoring the Growth Management Act and fighting with (and ultimately losing to) the Department of Ecology over water issues. This behavior cost the taxpayers an unknown but likely very large amount of money in legal fees and led directly to the problems Mr. Slater complained about in his recent letter to the editor.

Kittitas County finally became GMA compliant in 2014, and large parts of the county now have no access to groundwater at all.

Did politics and cronyism contribute to this situation? How about a lack of knowledge of complex regulatory situations? Of course. Would a professional approach to land use have saved us all this trouble and expense? It seems likely.

My hat is off to Commissioner O’Brien for his attempt to make county government better.

Steve Verhey