Washington state’s great water stand-off continues to impact homes and community

By MADILYNNE CLARK  | 
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Jul 20, 2017

As our state struggles to fix the problems created by the court ruling in the Hirst v. Whatcom County (known as the Hirst ruling), the third special session concludes today. Legislators will be leaving Olympia without a fix, without a compromise, and without a much needed solution for rural home owners and rural communities.

Since October’s ruling in Hirst effectively stopped rural development, Washington families and communities have been looking to legislators to provide the solution.

The Senate has passed, SB 5239 four times, which would deliver an actual solution to the Hirst ruling. The House continues to fail to vote on SB 5239 and to pass any legislation addressing the problems created by the ruling.

On July 19th, Senator Randi Becker, caucus chair for the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus said:

“It took months for the Democrats to even admit that Hirst is a real problem. Their half-hearted attempts to address concerns of rural communities will only make the division between Seattle and the rest of the state worse. People in Seattle get all the water they want from rural lands but rural families have to beg and borrow for water.

“I am saddened to think the House Democrat leadership won’t allow the Hirst fix to go to the floor for a vote because they know it would pass and that’s not what their campaign contributors want. Our position has the support it needs to pass, but the speaker of the House and the governor have shown they don’t care and never have.

“We have been clear that there would be no new capital budget without actually fixing Hirst. It is unacceptable that the state would fund and build its own priorities while rural families suffer. Government gets to build while taxpayers don’t? That’s a disgrace.”

The Governor is attempting to guilt the supporters of the Hirst solution in order to push through a temporary delay on the consequences of Hirst. Governor Inslee’s statement on the legislative action on Hirst released on July 19th said:

“At this point, a 24-month delay is the best approach to give the legislature time to evaluate a permanent fix while giving suffering property owners immediate relief. Senate Republicans have used the dramatic testimony of property owners such as Zach Nutting to make the case for a Hirst fix. And when my office spoke with Zach this week, he agreed that HB 2248, which would provide a 24-month delay, would provide that relief.”

Although HB 2248 would provide temporary relief for homeowners stuck in the middle, it would simply postpone the inevitable, putting the burden on rural property owners after December 31, 2018.

Inevitably the Nutting family and all rural communities will bear an unfair burden. The value of undeveloped land will decline, decreasing the property tax base and causing it to shift to remaining rural home owners. That reduction will challenge rural communities to fund essential services like county services (16%), cities and towns (12.7%), fire departments (5.5%), ports (1.5%), other including libraries, parks, emergency medical, and hospital districts (8.2%) and most importantly schools (56%). (Amount in parentheses is the distribution of where property taxes go.)

Ironically, as Democratic leaders point to the consequences of not having a capital budget, including funding for schools, mental health, and hospitals over the two-year capital budget, they are essentially holding hostage funding for these same services and more for rural communities because they will not provide a solution to Hirst.

The update from the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus on the last day of the special session reflects the disappointment and frustration of rural Washington with urban legislators. Senator Judy Warnick, prime sponsor of SB 5239 said:

“I have met regularly with my Democrat counterparts for weeks to find compromise on a Hirst-fix. We have made moves toward their position during negotiations, but each time it seems they have a new demand. It is clear to me that they have not been negotiating in good faith. In the final hours of the third special session, they demanded that tribes have a veto over where development occurs anywhere in the state. That is something that we cannot support.”

As we end this special session, all indicators point to the fact that Hirst will be yet another issue to drive the wedge deeper between rural and urban Washington.