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Friday, July 11, 2008 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

The land clash: Can we preserve the green?

A state appeals court's rejection of King County rural-land restrictions poses serious questions about how the county can preserve the environment.

The three-judge Court of Appeals panel ruled that land-clearing limits are an illegal form of in-kind tax, or fee, on development. Property owners in rural King County who want to develop their land are currently required to retain a certain amount of the trees and other native vegetation on their property.

King County Executive Ron Sims is right to seek answers from the Washington Supreme Court.

The appeals court discarded just one provision of the county's Clearing and Grading Code, but it is a very important one, a useful tool in helping maintain clean streams and wildlife habitat.

The limits on clearing and grading in forested areas are bolstered by convincing environmental science. Flexibility injected into the code struck a balance between environmental stewardship and the needs of rural property owners.

Moreover, the court's ruling could set an unhealthy precedent, inviting lawsuits from property owners unhappy with other zoning regulations, from setbacks to easements.

The county's oversight of land use is appropriate. Zoning mechanisms such as front- and side-yard setbacks and property easements are other tools in the land-use arsenal. The Court of Appeals doesn't cast doubt on these things. Nor do the judges refute the scientific journals and other scholarly evidence pointing to a harmful cause-and-effect of development.

The task for Sims is to marry the county's environmental objectives with the law. Government lawyers argued that the state Growth Management Act requires some limitations on rural land use.

"If the state Legislature had intended such a reading when it passed the GMA, it would have said so. It did not," retorted the court.

Onward to the high court, where it is hoped justices will agree that the county has the right to protect our lakes, streams and drinking water from excessive forest destruction.

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