`Equilibrium' On Environment? -- Republicans Seek To Undo Some Regulations

OLYMPIA - In finding what they say is an equilibrium between environmentalism and the rights of business and property owners, Republicans are not surprising anyone by opposing environmentalists.

But the way GOP legislators have gone about finding that balance this session has environmentalists sweating. They fear Republican proposals will undo 20 years of gains on environmental protections.

"We're looking at going back to the 19th century," said Bruce Wishart of the Sierra Club.

Republicans say the bills are in response to years of overregulation that have hurt businesses and taken away rights of individual property owners.

They have one anecdote after another about a farmer who had to give up part of his land because of an eagle's nest, or a logging company that failed because of mountains of paperwork required for water permits from the Department of Ecology.

In response, Republicans in the GOP-controlled House have introduced bills aimed at reducing business regulations and reinforcing individual property rights by making government pay when it imposes restrictions on private land.

"We had gone so far the other way that we need to balance the scales," said Rep. Bill Reams, a Bellevue Republican who sponsored a regulation-reduction measure. "We had bent over backwards for them, and it hurt small businesses."

But in addition to what legislators here are calling the "regulatory reform" movement, there also is an underlying frustration with the way the state has prioritized its extensive and expensive protections of forests, endangered species and Puget Sound water quality.

Many Republicans feel such things as the state's conservative logging policies on state land are a reflection of the environmentalist agenda, not good governance.

Republicans are frustrated by what they call an unwise spending policy for environmental protections. A bill introduced by Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Colville, would ax about $70 million a year set aside to buy the wildlife habitat of endangered species.

Another would force state agencies to examine the cost of cleaning up minor oil spills and hazardous-waste sites and decide if the money would be well spent.

"The environmental movement has been good to make us all aware of protecting the environment," McMorris said. "Unfortunately, we haven't been balanced. There comes a time when we have to weigh the threat to the environment vs. the cost of protecting it."

Other proposals Republicans feel would correct the balance include:

-- Making it easier for property owners to log land that is designated as protected. The current statute prohibits logging along salmon stream beds, for example, to protect the habitat. The bill would substitute protective language allowing an "acceptable rate of return" on the land.

-- Putting the Office of Marine Safety, which oversees oil-spill prevention and cleanup, under the wing of the Department of Ecology, although in a smaller role. The merger would happen automatically in 1997, but only after the department had developed a comprehensive oil-spill cleanup plan with British Columbia and other states.

-- Handing over state lands held since 1927 to counties that want to sell them to private timber companies.

-- Killing many water protections set up by Ecology and putting more emphasis on the cost-effectiveness of oil-spill and toxic-waste cleanup.

-- Letting every county except King, Snohomish, Pierce and Spokane opt out of the Growth Management Act, which regulates zoning and prevents building in environmentally sensitive areas.

"This is the worst session for us I've seen," said the Sierra Club's Wishart, who has been tracking legislation for nine years.

Many of the bills, such as the property-rights legislation passed by the House this session, have been introduced before. But environmentalist legislators such as Rep. Nancy Rust, the Seattle Democrat who chaired the House Natural Resources Committee last year, killed the bills with procedural gimmicks available to committee chairs.

This session, Rust was replaced by Rep. Steve Fuhrman, R-Kettle Falls, who had a zero percent voting record from environmental groups and a 90 percent record from contractors and developers last session.

Rust and others were expecting some backlash by Republicans who came into the majority in November, but Rust said, "I didn't realize it was going to be as bad it is until I got here."

But Tom McCabe, executive vice president of the Building Industry Association of Washington, said the swing back had been coming for some time. He had fought for several years to get the property-rights bill through the Legislature, but repeatedly saw it killed.

The proposal, which is now in initiative form and in the Senate for consideration, protects landowners from what they call "takings," or any action by the government that reduces the value of their property. The bill would make many zoning, water and endangered-species regulations unenforceable because of the high cost to local governments.

"The pendulum is swinging back to the middle," McCabe said. "It will take years and years of turning back what regulations have done to Washington state. The Department of Ecology in this state has elevated arrogance to an art form."

Mary Riveland, Ecology director, said she understands the frustrations about regulations. She said her department is working to reduce paperwork and save the agency money, but fears the mood among Republicans, who are writing the budget in the House, will result in drastic cuts to her budget.

"What we are seeing both here and at the federal level is seeking a new balance between the environment and the rights of people seeking to do business," said Riveland. Environmentalists are encouraged by some strong words from the Democrat-controlled Senate. Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, said she might kill some of the proposed legislation in her Government Operations committee, and other Democratic senators say they won't stand for rollbacks of environmental protections in the name of reducing regulations.

The Senate Democrats' attitude will shape much of what emerges from the session, which should encourage the environmental lobbyists, McCabe said.