OLYMPIA A local lawmaker is proposing a fix for a state Supreme Court ruling that hampers water access for rural households.
Senate Bill 5239 passed the state Senate yesterday. It was the first vote of the Legislature’s special session.
“Most counties don’t have the resources to do the extensive testing mandated by the Hirst ruling, and the testing required is too expensive for the average homeowner,” Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, said. “This has effectively brought all forms of building and development across Washington to a screeching halt, and families are suffering as a result.”
Honeyford co-sponsored the legislation, known as the “Hirst fix,” along with Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake.
It was approved with a bipartisan Senate vote during the 2017 regular session. However, the Democrat-controlled House failed to hold a vote on its own legislation to address the Hirst problem, nor did it approve SB 5239 despite support from rural property owners, associations and local governments for the Senate legislation.
The Senate approved it again yesterday with a bipartisan vote of 28 to 18. It now heads back to the House for its consideration.
“I hope the House does the right thing for our rural communities,” Warnick added.
“I stated repeatedly throughout the regular session that the Hirst issue needed to be addressed,” Warnick said. “The House failed and now that we are in a special session we must approve this bill. The situation around our state is getting worse and time is running out.”
Warnick said she recently heard from a farmer who cannot build housing for farmworkers because of the Hirst ruling.
“No good reason has been articulated by the House majority as to why this bill won’t go forward,” she said. “If it were brought to the House floor for a vote, I am confident it would pass with bipartisan support.”
The Washington Supreme Court’s Hirst decision determined that counties are now required to conduct their own tests for water availability — independent of the state Department of Ecology — before issuing building permits.
Before the October 2016 ruling, counties could rely on Ecology water data when making such decisions.
The ruling amounts to a “... war on rural Washington,” he said. “It is far past time for the House to help provide a solution.”
Honeyford pointed to Zach Nutting, a Whatcom County resident who testified before the Senate water committee that his dream of building a home for his family was destroyed by the Hirst decision. Domestic water use at issue represents less than 1 percent of water usage in the state, officials said.
“After the ruling, Whatcom County rescinded the permission for Mr. Nutting to drill his private well, and he has been stuck in developmental limbo ever since,” Honeyford said. “This has left him and his family technically homeless as he tries to navigate the tangle of red tape brought on by the ruling. The House must act now to provide families like the Nuttings with a lifeline.”
Honeyford, the Senate’s capital-budget chairman, said he will use his role as a chief architect of the capital spending plan to encourage House Democrats to take action on Hirst.
“Before we can negotiate a capital budget, we need a Hirst fix,” he said. “If approved by the House, our bill would reverse the disastrous impacts Hirst has had on rural development.”