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Controversial wildlife habitat proposal under review next week

YAKIMA - Depending on who you talk to, the proposal is either a necessity to help local wildlife or a loss of private property rights.

At the center of the debate are Yakima County's proposed upland wildlife habitat conservation areas.

As required by the state, county commissioners two years ago developed what they felt were suitable areas to set aside for habitat conservation.

A consortium of about a dozen groups - ranging from the Audubon Society to the Yakama Nation - felt commissioners did not go far enough. They felt more should be done to protect habitat from development and appealed the county's original proposal.

The result of mediation between the county and its opponents is a wildlife habitat proposal that has grown to include more than one million acres in Yakima County.

A public hearing on the proposal is set for next Tuesday, July 7, at 5:30 p.m. in the Yakima Convention Center.

County Commissioner Rand Elliott said the primary areas in focus for the new wildlife habitat proposal are lands in the hills and ridges, the shrub steppe, above the Yakima Valley floor. The county back in 1995 addressed wildlife habitat for wetland areas.

The habitat area proposal would include lands near Sunnyside.

"If you go to the end of Scoon Road another half mile you're into shrub steppe," Elliott said, adding there are several farm lands in the county that could be impacted by the habitat proposal.

Under the proposal, land owners in those areas deemed for habitat would need to take additional steps before building on their property.

Elliott noted there is a scenario where a landowner with property deemed wildlife habitat would have to hire someone to determine what wildlife lives on the property. He said that would be a considerable cost and delay for construction.

"It's putting another layer of bureaucracy on the land," Elliott said. "It's almost representative to me of big brother trying to tell you what to do."

The issue is a hot button topic for commissioners, as Elliott feels local elected officials, in this case the commissioners, are having to yield control and say to other groups.

Combine that with the fact that commissioners are getting heat from property rights proponents and environmental groups for doing too much or too little for habitat.

"Commissioners are stuck in the middle," Elliott said.

Another concern, said Elliott, is that the proposal developed through the appeal process takes even more land off the property tax rolls as conservation groups look to buy up habitat lands.

"Already less than 25 percent of the land in this county is privately owned," he said.

Elliott sees the situation as one where private landowners are losing not only rights but also in the sense they'll have to pay a greater share of property taxes with more lands in government or non-profit hands.

"The land owner is losing something here and he's not getting compensated," Elliott said. "People with a particular point of view are trying to impose it on others without representation."

Elliott said he and his fellow commissioners aren't just concerned, they intend to be advocates for property rights.

"We'll fight to minimize the effect this has on landowners," he said. "We're not just going to cave in and give up to these guys."

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