King County limits development in environmentally sensitive areas on August 29, 1990.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 8/14/2006
  • Essay 7886
On August 29, 1990, the King County Council adopts a controversial Sensitive Areas Ordinance that regulates and limits new development in or near wetlands, streams, and steep slopes. Originally proposed 18 months earlier by Republican County Executive Tim Hill (b. 1936) and substantially rewritten by the Council, the legislation is designed to reduce flooding, erosion, damage to fish and wildlife habitat, and other environmental harm caused by destroying wetlands and building on slopes and streambanks. The ordinance, which anticipates a major requirement later imposed by the state Growth Management Act, helps inspire several unsuccessful challenges to growth management regulation in the 1990s but remains in effect, with modifications and adjustments, until the County adopts an even stricter and equally controversial Critical Areas Ordinance in 2004.

Environmental Losses

By January 1989, when County Executive Hill proposed the new Sensitive Areas Ordinance, the County had already lost two-thirds of the wetlands it had when created in the 1850s. Wetlands play critical environmental roles by acting as giant sponges to soak up stormwater and prevent flooding and by providing habitat for wildlife of all kinds. Their ongoing loss led to worsening floods and declines in fish and animal species. Similarly, clearing and building on steep slopes caused greater erosion and flooding, and at times resulted in damaging landslides, while development near streams further depleted the region's historic salmon population and other wildlife.

Although the County had initially enacted a sensitive areas ordinance in 1979, the original measure was based on project-by-project negotiations with developers and did not set general standards or procedures for enforcement. Hill proposed a stricter ordinance that would bar most construction in wetlands and on streambanks and steep slopes and require buffer strips between development and these sensitive areas.

Hill's proposal was controversial from the start. Many developers, builders, and property owners, particularly in rural areas of the county, denounced the ordinance as going too far and denying them use of their property without compensation. On the other hand, Democratic County Councilmember Cynthia Sullivan worried that Hill's proposal was not strong or enforceable enough.

Debate and Approval

With citizens demanding more input and the Council dissatisfied with the Executive's draft, hearings and debate on the Sensitive Areas Ordinance stretched on for over a year. Sullivan led the Council's efforts at first, but after Republicans gained control of the Council in the November 1989 election, Republican newcomer Brian Derdowski -- like Sullivan an advocate for growth management -- supervised the final drafting.

The Council approved the resulting 105-page Sensitive Areas Ordinance by a vote of 8-1 on August 29, 1990. Republican Kent Pullen (1943-2003), who voted no, called the ordinance "a monstrosity that violates constitutional rights" by taking property without compensation (Lane, "Council Oks ..."). Fellow Republicans disagreed. Paul Barden said:

"A lot of people feel they have an unconditional right to do what they want with their property ... But I have fashioned the rule of 75: No one who owns land today owned it 75 years ago, and our responsibility to our children and grandchildren is such that we have to turn over that real property to them in usable form" ("Council Oks...").
Derdowski, who called the ordinance the most significant environmental protection legislation in the County's history, said:
"I don't believe people should be compensated for doing something they have no right to do ... They have no right to pollute or damage other property ... so there is no right to compensation. Property rights are not absolute" ("Council Oks...").
King County's consideration and adoption of the Sensitive Areas Ordinance overlapped with the state Legislature's enactment of the Growth Management Act (GMA) in its 1990 session. The GMA was a statewide manifestation of the growth management "revolution" triggered by voter frustration over the effects of rapidly increasing development, especially in King County and the surrounding central Puget Sound area. One of the GMA's major requirements, which took effect in 1991, was that the state's large and fast-growing counties and the cities in those counties enact regulations protecting what the Act termed critical areas, which included wetlands and other areas already protected by the County's Sensitive Areas Ordinance (as well as some additional environmentally important features).

Early Compliance

Thus King County's Sensitive Areas Ordinance anticipated and complied with a major aspect of the GMA even before the Act took effect. Similarly, a number of cities in King County, including Bellevue and Kirkland, had adopted protective sensitive areas ordinances years before the GMA made doing so mandatory.

Although no successful challenge was mounted to the 1990 Sensitive Areas Ordinance, many land owners and developers continued to grumble about what they considered its overly onerous requirements. The ordinance, along with the County's subsequent adoption of an urban-growth boundary strictly limiting development in rural areas and other measures required by GMA, prompted two ultimately unsuccessful challenges to County leadership and land use regulation -- the attempt to create a new Cedar County out of east King County and the statewide Referendum 48 that would have required local governments to pay landowners for regulations that diminished property values.

Over the years, the County Council did respond to complaints about the Sensitive Areas Ordinance with various tweaks and adjustments designed to ease hardships it imposed. At the same time, however, wetlands and other environmentally critical areas, and salmon and other species continued to decline, prompting calls for even greater protection. When the Legislature amended GMA to require updated critical areas protection by 2004, the County adopted a new Critical Areas Ordinance, touching off a new round of controversy and legal and electoral battles that (in 2006) have yet to be resolved.

Sources: Bob Lane, "Hill To Propose Wetlands Protection -- `People Feel We Should Not Pave Over King County,'" The Seattle Times, January 17, 1989 (; Louis T. Corsaletti, "Land-Use Proposal Criticized -- Plan Called Threat To Landowners," Ibid., September 27, 1989; Corsaletti, "Proposal To Limit Building Readied -- Eastside Areas Would Be Affected," Ibid., September 29, 1989; Linda Keene, "Water Woes To Get Deeper -- Land-Development, Lack Of Money Add To County's Runoff Problems," Ibid., January 12, 1990; Lane, "Council Oks Protection For Sensitive Areas," Ibid., August 30, 1990; Himanee Gupta, County Bends On Sensitive Areas -- Council Relaxes Some Environmental Rules," Ibid., December 20, 1994; 1990 Wash. Laws, 1st Ex. Sess., Ch. 17; 1991 Wash. Laws, 1st Spec. Sess., ch. 32.

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