Opinion

Viewpoint

"The Growth Management Act was passed by the Washington State Legislature in 1990 and has gone through subsequent amendments. It was designed by the legislature to be a bottom end up planning process and was intended to engage communities in the development of a comprehensive plan that reflected the values of the people involved. The act itself has broad parameters allowing counties and cities to adopt plans of varying types. The act also authorized the establishment of hearings boards to review each plan if some members of the community appealed. As the hearings boards made decisions, case law was developed that was then used to guide counties on future decision making. In other words, this GMA law was not cut and dried but indeed was a moving target. In Island County, this process was started utilizing the Planning Commission and county staff. As early as 1994, the county had a GMA plan; however, decisions by the hearings boards made that plan non-compliant. It became apparent that unless we developed a computerized mapping program we would not be able to show our work to the satisfaction of the hearings board. This, coupled with the untimely death of our newly hired planning director, a subsequent interim director and, finally, hiring a new director, delayed the process and produced many more hearings board decisions with which we needed to comply.In the fall of 1997, it became apparent to the Board of County Commissioners that without help, we were not going to be able to develop a plan that would incorporate the divergent views of our citizens and be compliant with the GMA. The problem was that we needed someone who could speak with authority about what the law required and what could and couldn't be done. The board decided to hire Keith Dearborn, a land use attorney with a masters degree in planning from Seattle who was familiar with Island County and an expert on the Growth Management Act. He had served on the Land Use Study Commission, a group appointed by the governor to review the GMA and make suggested changes. Keith immediately brought order to the process and by the fall of 1998, we adopted a comprehensive plan and development regulations along with other required elements of the act.The plan was appealed to the hearings board by certain interest groups and in mid-1999, the hearings board approved much of our plan and remanded parts back to the county for reconsideration. During the remainder of 1999 we reached a negotiated settlement on all issues with the exception of one appellant. Again, Mr. Dearborn was key in these negotiations and was respected by both sides of the issues.The cost of Dearborn & Moss' services through January of 2000 has been $722,670. This includes the services of Alison Moss, who is a critical areas attorney, as well as costs for some consultants used in specific areas of plan development. In addition, when Keith Dearborn, Alison Moss and Elaine Spencer were employees of Bogle & Gates, a Seattle law firm, the county paid $408,691. Elaine Spencer, now with the Seattle law firm of Graham & Dunn, has been paid $15,663 since moving to her new firm. Total outside legal costs are $1,147,025. We also had a major contract with McConnell Burke, a planning firm, in the amount of $325,050.In order to hire a special counsel, the Superior Court judges had to approve the original contract, plus any amendments. The contract language and amendments had specified time limits that could not be exceeded, but a dollar amount that could be increased by action of the Board of County Commissioners. When the amendment was presented to the judges to extend the contract after the last one expired, they refused, citing the costs to the county, an option which, of course, was within their rights.One comment made by the judges during contract discussion was comply with the law and let the chips fall where they may. I wish it was that easy. If the board is to involve the community as the act requires, it is not as simple as saying this is what we like and that is what we are going to do. Instead, we have to build a record a volumes of public testimony about every facet of what we have put in the comprehensive plan. We have worked hard and satisfied most people, but still the appeals continue. If we stop at this point then people would have the right to ask, why did I participate when you are going to allow one group to dictate to the whole?This process is costly and I will not argue that the amount spent is not a lot of money; however, other counties have spent considerable sums and are not as close to the finish line as we are in some cases. Since 1996, Skagit County has spent $1,338,558, with another $250,000 projected for the year 2000, on outside attorneys and consultants. At this point, Skagit does not have developmental regulations, a major part of GMA compliance. Lewis County was not required to plan under GMA until 1996, but to date has spent $566,047 on outside legal counsel. They do not have completed developmental regulations and are awaiting their first appearance before the hearings board on appeal of their comprehensive plan. Snohomish County has spent $3.78 million on legal counsel, of which $2.4 million was paid to outside counsel with the remainder spent on new hires in the Prosecutor's Office. These figures do not include costs for planning consultants. Mason County reports they have spent approximately $1.5 million on outside consultants and attorneys but remain mired in appeals and invalidity determinations by the hearings board.A question was raised by the judges about printing charges under the contract. The amount was $2,460.74 which represented 44,265 pages that were two-sided, three-hole punched and tabbed. The printing company produced 13 copies of an 80-page brief and the supporting record, which was a requirement of the legal GMA process.We do not have a land use specialist on staff and Mr. Dearborn has done much more than what most attorneys would do as a staff deputy prosecutor. He has attended every meeting, and is completely familiar with the process and how we arrived at the results that we have. We can continue to use Mr. Dearborn as a consultant before the hearings board. If we must go to court, is it wise to use an attorney that is not familiar with what has transpired throughout this long process?In conclusion, I hope the ultimate outcome justifies the cost and the thousands of hours that citizens have spent attempting to shape Island County over the next 20 years.Mike Shelton is Island County Commissioner from District 1, which includes South Whidbey and Coupeville."

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