Washington State: 'Want Your Check? Draft a Growth Plan'

Chelan County did not get its usual monthly check in July from the state of Washington for $140,000, its share of the motor vehicle fuel tax. The way things are going, it won't get its next monthly check, either.

Chelan County, a rural community that is home to some of the most productive apple and pear orchards in the world, is thumbing its nose at the state of Washington. It is rebelling against a six-year-old law forcing counties to come up with a plan to manage growth. It believes land-use decisions should be left to local government - without meddling from state bureaucrats.

The state, on the orders of lame-duck Gov. Mike Lowry (D), has responded with an unprecedented move: imposing economic sanctions on one of its own counties.

The pique over property rights is one being mirrored across the United States. A growing number of ranchers, farmers, and other individuals have been balking at government environmental regulations and other rules imposing restrictions on the use of their property.

Yet rarely does the dispute involve two government entities, let alone one in which the state actually withholds money as punishment. "It is a breach of intergovernmental civility," says Bruce McDowell, director of government policy research for the US Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations.

Critics consider the sanctions called for under Washington's Growth Management Act "extortion." Supporters see them as a necessary step, mild in comparison with what the law allows the governor to do. If Chelan County complies with the act, it will get all of the withheld funds, with interest.

The legislature passed the act in 1990 and the governor's right to impose sanctions in 1991, after outsiders - particularly Californians - had surged into Washington, raising fears among residents that a bigger population and uncontrolled development would despoil the state.

Next to Nevada and Idaho, the US Census Bureau projects that Washington will be the third-fastest growing state in the country by 2010, adding more than 1 million new residents.

Under the act, each of the state's 29 largest and fastest-growing counties must draft plans to manage growth and development. It calls for strategies to set out urban growth areas, conserve agricultural land, protect critical areas such as wildlife habitat, and establish regulations for development.

The governor's office calls the plans "a road map for development" and points out that they are based on input from local residents.

But Chelan County Commissioner John Wall calls it nothing less than "an attempt to change our form of government," to centralize power in the hands of the governor. Mr. Wall and another commissioner complain that regional hearing boards set up by the state to approve the plans take away local control.

They say the act is unconstitutional and have attempted to have it overturned in the courts. So far, they have failed. The county has appealed to the state Supreme Court.

The commissioners' stand came gradually. At first, they appointed a citizen's committee to draw up plans. But when the committee came back with recommendations, the commissioners rejected most of them and passed plans that failed to meet the requirements of the act.

In May, Lowry gave the county a June 30 deadline for a plan to protect agriculture and a July 31 deadline for a plan to designate critical areas. The county ignored both, and Lowry's sanctions kicked in.

Many Chelan County residents back the commissioners, but some - primarily local orchard owners - fear for the destruction of the orchards, which produce nearly 30 percent of the nation's apple supply.

The act has become something of a political football. Republicans say they'd like to gut it; Democrats say they'd fine-tune it.

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