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Friday, September 2, 2005 - 12:00 AM

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Attorney general files challenge to land-use ordinance

By Ashley Bach
Seattle Times Eastside bureau

Last fall, King County Council member Rob McKenna stood on a sidewalk in downtown Seattle surrounded by rural residents protesting the county's controversial new critical-areas ordinance. McKenna joined the sign-carrying crowd and said it was a "very good idea" to bring referendums to the ballot that could overturn the new land-use rules.

Now, in his first year as state attorney general, McKenna appears to be continuing the fight.

This summer he filed an amicus curiae, or "friend of the court," brief with the state Supreme Court supporting the efforts of a group of rural residents to bring the referendums to the ballot. The brief was a boost to the residents' campaign.

McKenna's spokesman, Greg Lane, said the brief was an effort to preserve voters' right to challenge some land-use ordinances and had nothing to do with McKenna's views on the critical-areas ordinance, or CAO. "His personal feelings of the CAO didn't drive his involvement here," Lane said.

The rural residents want to get three referendums on the ballot in unincorporated King County. If passed, the referendums would overturn the CAO, which is aimed at protecting environmentally sensitive areas and limits how rural residents can use their land.

As a County Council member, McKenna was one of six Republicans who voted against the CAO when it was approved by the council last October. He called the ordinance "the most draconian land-use regulations in the state, if not the country."

County Executive Ron Sims says McKenna's brief continues the attorney general's "personal philosophy" of questioning many aspects of the state Growth Management Act and other land-use regulations.

Lane, McKenna's spokesman, said the brief is about "protecting the voter's right to have a voice" in the lawmaking process.

The rural residents appealed to the state Supreme Court after a King County Superior Court judge ruled in January that the referendums could not go forward because they were outside the scope of citizens' referendum power.

The judge's ruling agreed with a 1994 Supreme Court decision regarding a critical-areas ordinance in Whatcom County. The court said local laws adopted to comply with the state Growth Management Act cannot be overturned by local referendum.

The residents are asking the Supreme Court to hear their case and overturn the Whatcom County decision, saying it conflicts with other rulings. McKenna's brief, filed July 21, asked the Supreme Court to "clarify" the Whatcom County decision.

The residents say they expect to know later this month whether the Supreme Court will hear their case.

Ashley Bach: 206-464-2567 or abach@seattletimes.com