As of Friday, March 10, 2017
I’ve made the drive between Sunnyside and the state Capitol too many times to count in my years representing the 15th Legislative District.
During that time, I’ve been encouraged by the sight of new homes and settlements sprouting gradually in rural communities, away from the hustle and bustle of Washington’s metropolitan areas. The idea of buying a parcel of land and building a life for yourself and your family is a hallmark of many people’s concept of the American dream.
Unfortunately, in the aftermath of the state Supreme Court’s 2016 Hirst decision, establishing a home in rural Washington can sometimes feel more like a nightmare. In Hirst, the Supreme Court ruled against Whatcom County in a case that claimed the county failed to protect water resources under the Growth Management Act.
While the ruling specifically involved one county, it set a precedent for the entire state, meaning any number of counties could be susceptible to lawsuits for failure to comply.
The Hirst decision determined that counties are now required to conduct their own tests for water availability — independent of the Department of Ecology — before issuing building permits.
While private wells that draw less than 5,000 gallons of water a day are exempt from the permit process, the court chose to ignore that clear legislative intent.
Most counties don’t have the resources to do extensive testing mandated by the ruling. In addition, the testing required is too expensive for the average homeowner. This has effectively brought all forms of building and development across Washington to a screeching halt.
The decision has created an enormous hurdle for rural residents aspiring to build homes. And many property holders in the beginning stages of development have seen the value of their property plummet due to the inability to rely on a private well as a reliable water source.
Zach Nutting, a Whatcom County resident who testified before the Senate agriculture committee, recently purchased 5 acres with the expectation he could drill a private well and build a home for his growing family. After the Hirst ruling, Whatcom County rescinded the permission for Nutting to drill his private well, and he has been stuck in developmental limbo ever since. This has left him and his family technically homeless as he tries to navigate the impenetrable tangle of red tape brought on by the recent ruling.
Yakima County residents are now facing the prospect of having their private wells metered so the county can bill them for their use. These small private wells account for less than 1 percent of the groundwater drawn in Washington state.
The Hirst decision has left Washington three choices to address the newfound developmental gridlock:
Property owners can decide to cease development.
Counties can attempt to extend municipal water systems to pipe water into rural areas – an endeavor that would cost an absurd amount of time, money, and resources.
The last, and by far the most conceivable option, is to allow small-well exemptions with certain policy conditions.
In the Senate, we recently passed a bill to address this problem. Senate Bill 5239, which I co-sponsored, would allow counties to continue using rules established by Ecology to determine water availability. It would also reaffirm the exemptions of small private wells, with conditions to mitigate impacts to aquatic resources and fish habitats.
If approved by the House, this bill would effectively reverse the disastrous impacts Hirst has had on rural development.
My chief concern is protecting the property rights of Washingtonians – making sure they have the ability to develop and use their property as they see fit. I want to see families continue making their homes in the countryside of our beautiful state. Access to reliable sources of water is key to meeting those goals.
Besides, my trips to the Capitol can always use the sense of encouragement.
— Sen. Jim Honeyford is vice president pro tempore of the Senate and a long-serving member of the Senate Agriculture, Water, Trade & Economic Development Committee.