Rural rage festers in King County

Something has gone awry in rural King County.

Across farmland and along country roads, a seething anger is spreading. Residents from North Bend to Enumclaw to Vashon Island say they have never been more furious with the government meant to serve them. In recent months, they've accused county leaders of dumping unwanted projects on unincorporated land and ignoring concerns of those outside the urban core.

The frustration — playing out in the courts, the Legislature and in people's back yards — has turned into the seeds of rural rebellion:

• Furious over the passage of new restrictions on how their property can be developed, rural landowners collected 51,000 signatures in just five weeks to try to force a referendum to overturn the rules. Angry residents caravaned to downtown Seattle in mud-splattered horse trailers to protest, carrying homemade picket signs with slogans such as "Ron Sims, Kiss My Grass."

• Property-rights activists have set up a legal fund and are drafting a proposed law similar to one Oregon voters recently passed. It requires governments to compensate landowners for lost property value caused by new land-use rules. A meeting this month in Olympia drew people from the Building Industry Association of Washington and the Washington Grange, and support from initiative king Tim Eyman.

• The Citizens Alliance for Property Rights, a new political-action committee, is using the Internet to link landowners in dozens of spread-out communities. A flurry of messages is posted on its Web site every day, featuring venomous discussions about the county's "hidden agendas" and ideas on how to recall county leaders, overturn land rules and create a new, rural-only county. In the past few months, rural residents have swarmed to barns and living rooms to plan strategy and build strength.

Some of the conflict stems from local issues, such as the county's offer to host a homeless encampment on unincorporated land near Bothell, and its recent decision to allow gravel trucks to haul loads through quiet Maple Valley almost around the clock to feed the third runway project at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

The county's new redistricting map, which shrinks rural districts from three to two, has also fueled resentment from residents who see it as reducing their already minimal political clout.

But the new critical-areas ordinances, which restrict landowners' use of up to 65 percent of their property, have raised the most ire.

"There's going to be a huge amount of civil disobedience. Remember the Boston Tea Party? We're that mad," said Stan Powers, who owns seven acres with cows, horses and goats outside of Kent. Powers says he is infuriated with the amount of paperwork, money and bureaucracy it takes to do things as simple as remove a downed tree or replace a footbridge over a creek.

Kathy Lambert, one of three King County council members representing rural areas, says things have never been so bad. Though there has long been tension between rural residents and a county government divided between rolling pastures and bustling urban areas, the conflict has reached a critical point, she said.

"I would liken the relationship between rural people and King County to a divorce. A hostile divorce," Lambert said.

Even Dow Constantine of Seattle, who chairs the council's growth-management committee and shaped the new ordinances, acknowledges the problem between the county and its rural communities.

"I know there's a great deal of frustration with the bureaucracy," he said. "We want to take up some of these issues and address them."

Shifting shares

Just two in 10 King County residents lived in unincorporated areas in 2000, compared to four in 10 in 1989 — largely because many urban unincorporated areas have been annexed by existing cities or incorporated into new ones.

But while the populated areas are being absorbed into cities, the rural areas are being left alone; overall, 8 percent of the county's population still lives in rural areas, about the same as 15 years ago.

By 2012, the county estimates, unincorporated areas will be made up solely of rural and natural-resource areas. In fact, the county's goal is to become a "regional, rural government," said King County Executive Ron Sims, pointing to its push for annexations.

That picture should give rural residents more, not less, clout with the county, many residents say. Instead, they feel increasingly overlooked.

"There have been a lot of unfulfilled promises," said Jerry Adam, who owns five acres between Issaquah and Maple Valley.

Adam points to small issues in his own community — a county trail built without equestrian access, for example — as evidence of what he sees as arrogance toward rural residents.

"They think the rural area is their private retreat. But we live here, we care for it. At some point, you just have to say, 'Enough.' "

King County leaders say they are trying to strike a balance.

Sims, who has been criticized by many rural residents, points to the county's top rating among U.S. counties for flood control, an issue critical to rural areas.

The county continues to subsidize services in rural areas, he said, and used dozens of rural meetings last year to forge compromises on the critical-area ordinances, including a new stewardship program to help landowners avoid bureaucratic layers.

This month, Sims announced a rural initiative aimed at improving relations, including the addition of a rural economic-development specialist.

Simmering issue

Rural unrest dates back to King County's original 1990 critical-areas ordinance. Furious residents responded by trying to carve a new county, Cedar County, out of east King County.

Since then, it's been a long succession of complaints big and small — from the impacts of the Brightwater sewage-treatment plant in the north to the county's refusal to dredge May Creek in the south.

Myra Lemson, who lives and grows roses on an acre-plus east of Redmond, says her complaints go back years: She had to pay for a private road to get access to her home; she says she pays the same taxes, yet gets a lower quality of public services (such as slower police-response times) than those in more urban areas. Under the new rules, she could have to pay for a permit to remove the blackberries that plague her property and house rats.

"I am a Democrat, and this has been a struggle for me," Lemson said. "The only members of the council who have even responded to my concerns are Republicans."

Howard Van Laeken bought his five acres east of Woodinville near Duvall in 1980. He hoped to subdivide the property and retire on the earnings but thinks new rules will prevent that.

The irony, he points out, is that 800 feet away is Trilogy, a 1,500-home planned development approved by the county.

"Our individual rights are limited, but Quadrant is allowed to come in, strip the land and build thousands of homes," he said.

He and others are pinning their hopes on a possible appeal of the court's decision earlier this month not to send the new land-use rules to voters, and on a clone of the Oregon law in the works.

Spirits were raised last week when Rep. Dan Roach, R-Bonney Lake, sponsored a bill that would require owner compensation for loss of property value resulting from the new ordinances. Roach's bill also would make the rules subject to citizen referendum.

Joan Burlingame, who owns five acres in Ravensdale and was one of those who reviewed the original draft of the new critical-area ordinances, argues that the ordinances do a lot of good. Livestock owners, for example, can now avoid wide stream-buffer requirements if they develop a farm plan, she said.

But the county is not communicating well with rural constituents, Burlingame adds. "The relationship is pretty dysfunctional sometimes," she said. "I don't even think they speak the same language."

Boots Fisher, 82, who lives with her husband outside of North Bend, said she's watched the relationship with King County go downhill over the years.

"It used to be that they pretty much left us alone," she said. "I realize that when you have population increases like we have, you can't let people do whatever they want. But I think people should be allowed to control their own property."

Natalie Singer: 206-464-2704 or