Guest contributor Arie van der Hoeven is a land owner near Ames Lake in rural King County, Washington. He is concerned about the implications of Initiative 933. [Note: This is part of a series.]

Initiative I-933 is bad property rights policy, full of unintended consequences that will hurt rural property owners most of all. Those of us in rural King County have learned that the one thing worse than dealing with regulation is dealing with uncertainty. And I-933 will mean uncertainty.

I-933 will ride the rural backlash which fomented with King County’s Critical Areas Ordinances (CAOs). Whether or not you believe this complex set of ordinances was the right balance, out here in rural areas there is a perception that they unfairly burden the rural property owner. In fact, county council votes on the CAOs fell strictly along the rural-urban divide and the rural minority lost. That loss created hard feelings that are now easily manipulated by the I-933 supporters in King County who thirst for payback. Emotion is dictating over reason.

What else is fueling the rural backlash?

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  • In King County the Department of Development and Environment Services is the only agency in the region that funds itself entirely through fees. As a result, environmental regulations and bureaucracy are paid for by rural landowners. Worse yet, since there is no budget to adhere to there is little incentive for bureaucratic efficiency or common sense. Many rural landowners, including my wife and me, find ourselves scratching our heads after spending thousands of dollars on permits with very little to show for the expense. Lawsuits have ensued.

    I-933 advocates will seize on rural frustration for its emotional impact. TV ads will tell stories of grandmothers and school teachers who invested in land that became largely unusable, or were taxed off their land. These stories would be easier for me to dismiss had our neighbors not fallen into a debt and refinancing trap last year.As the bank moved to foreclose, our neighbors were forced to sell both their home and a separate 3 acre parcel. Compounding their problems, the CAOs made it more difficult for potential buyers to obtain a bank loan on the property, making it tough to sell.Our neighbors did not have the knowledge, health, money, nor time to apply for and get the Critical Areas Designation they needed. And there will be other stories used in support of I-933 that are more than hyperbole.

    But I-933 is not the answer. The initiative is not even sensible enough to be called a “developer’s initiative” and area builder groups know enough to remain neutral. Rolling back 10 years or more of regulations will have unintended consequences that will change rural property values, but not necessarily for the better. It will make a few rich while most lose.In our area zoning will remain largely intact, but strong lumber prices will mean that we will see a return of clear cutting and increasing traffic jams as we absorb even more congestion from Snohomish County where growth will be unbounded. Redmond Ridge and other “urban” developments in rural areas could also be expanded.We’ll also lose common sense protections for our wetlands and waterways, which feed the aquifers that supply the drinking water in our area.

    What many of us in the rural areas are waiting for is a middle path where our concerns are met and our voices are heard. James Vessely of the Seattle Times has been a proponent of a more balanced approach. In a March 2006 column opposing I-933 he noted wisely, “…it is at best foolhardy to think this voter initiative does not rise from broad disparities in the way urbanization has treated the land, and how a family can lose an inheritance with the stroke of a planner’s pen.”

    So far no leader has stepped up with an approach that adequately addresses rural concerns. As a result of this leadership vacuum, Washington is headed for an emotional debate over I-933, which will make it hard for voices of reason to be heard. If we continue to polarize rural land owners we will run the danger of losing other sympathetic voters. It is a dangerous strategy to craft smug statements that win in Wallingford but alienate Carnation. We need a “No On 933” campaign that truly understands rural concerns and offers cooperative alternatives to the imposed regulations that only widen the urban-rural divide.