Long-awaited suit against CAO filed
By: Ben Cape March 10, 2005 
SNOQUALMIE VALLEY - Riding a wave of rural landowner discontent, a California-based law firm has filed suit against the highly criticized Critical Areas Ordinance (CAO), a group of land-use regulations that was passed last fall by the Metropolitan King County Council. 
The Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), a nonprofit, private property rights law firm that has a Northwest office in Bellevue, filed suit last week in Snohomish County against King County Executive Ron Sims, King County and the Metropolitan King County Council. The suit asks that one of the most contested parts of the ordinance be repealed; a clearing and grading ordinance that specifies anywhere from 50 to 65 percent of a parcel of land needs to retain its native vegetation.
The firm first announced the move last December but was going to wait to see what would happen with efforts to stall the CAO by citizen referendum. Once the referendum effort was defeated in King County Superior Court earlier this year, the firm started to gather plaintiffs and refine its case.
Russell Brooks, managing attorney for PLF, said the suit was filed in Snohomish County to increase the possibility of it getting a fair hearing outside of King County.
"We were just trying to secure a neutral playing field," he said.
Five private landowners and the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights (CAPR) are named as plaintiffs in the suit. The CAPR is the group of citizens that led the citizen referendum effort, and the landowners range from those who own less than an acre to those with hundreds of acres in unincorporated King County.
Tom Covey of North Bend is one of the suit's plaintiffs. He said the CAO would prohibit him from adding a garage onto his home in the Wilderness Rim neighborhood outside of North Bend's city limits. He has .29 acres and doesn't think he will be able to build with the CAO prohibiting development on his land. Brooks said Covey is a perfect example of someone who has had their land rendered useless by the CAO.
"People think this [CAO] only applies to people building mansions and that's not true," Brooks said. "It's about normal, everyday people doing normal, everyday things."
County officials have maintained that the CAO is a lot more flexible than most landowners believe it to be. There are many exceptions to the rules in the CAO, which lets landowners bend or break some of the regulations depending on what they are building and for what purpose. Since the passage of the CAO, county officials have offered workshops that show landowners what they can do on their land and officials said they have gotten a good response.
"Some people are surprised when they talk to our staff," said Carolyn Duncan, communications director for Ron Sims' office. "I don't think people realize what they can do."
Duncan said the county recently decided to waive the permit fee for blackberry clearing, one of the plants allowed to be cleared under the CAO. Such moves, she said, demonstrate that the county is willing to work with rural landowners through land-use plans and allowed uses.
Covey said such plans don't do him much good since he doesn't farm.
"What kind of rural stewardship plan could I have?" he said.
Brooks said that since there are no facts to be disputed in the case, it will likely be decided in the courts by judges as strictly a matter of law. Should both sides appeal whatever ruling is handed down - another likelihood, Brooks said - there is a chance the case could go all the way to the state Supreme Court.
"I think we have an excellent chance [to win]," Brooks said.
The county has until later this month to respond to the PLF lawsuit.