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Sunday, February 25, 2024
Feb. 25, 2024

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In Our View: County Keeps Hearing ‘No’

Stormwater rules fight is being lost in the courts; it's time to give up

The Columbian

The message could not have been more clear, yet we wonder if Clark County commissioners were listening. All three judges on a Washington Court of Appeals panel rejected all four of the county’s arguments and ruled that the county is not adequately dealing with polluted stormwater runoff.That’s 12 separate “No” answers, according to our math. Quite compelling. Even NFL replacement refs would’ve made the same ruling, we suspect. And this was not the first time Clark County officials have heard that answer. The state Pollution Control Hearings Board previously dealt the same blow, noting the county’s compromise with the state Department of Ecology falls short of federal and state clean water laws. The Court of Appeals’ decision on Tuesday upheld that earlier ruling.

County commissioners now must decide if they want to appeal to the state Supreme Court. That would be the wrong strategy. Those repeated rejections by the courts are ample reason for commissioners to abandon this quixotic search for more lenient stormwater runoff rules. Stop spending tax dollars on these serial smackdowns.

There are other reasons for county commissioners to cut their losses on this five-year dispute over stormwater rules. One motivation to quit the fight is the out-on-a-limb theory. Clark County is the only Western Washington jurisdiction to appeal the 2007 ruling by the DOE that newly developed land must drain as slowly as it did prior to Euro-American settlement. County commissioners and local developers (the local Building Industry Association joined the county in the most recent appeal) have argued that the pre-European settlement requirement is unreasonable. And it’s made even more so, they say, by the prevalence of clay in soils above the Columbia River valley, in many unincorporated areas.But the best approach now is for county officials to find ways to follow state law. That could mean higher costs for developers, and ultimately customers. For example, developers won’t be able to fit as many parcels into a subdivision because they’ll have to leave more land open for mitigation work.

But the current compromise that shifts part of the cost from developers to taxpayers is unfair to taxpayers, who already are unfairly burdened by having to pay for much of the growth in the county.

County officials complain that it’s unfair for some Puget Sound jurisdictions to receive exemptions to stormwater regulations. They also say watersheds in Clark County — Salmon Creek, for example — are much larger than many communities elsewhere.

None of those complaints, however, have gained any traction in repeated court battles.

County officials also have said the legal battles are worth it, that if the overly strict regulations are imposed, it actually will be a net loss for the environment because watersheds will continue to suffer degradation, and the economy also will suffer because of the higher cost of development.Are those points well taken? Perhaps among county officials, but they haven’t persuaded the courts. Meanwhile, other communities are finding ways to comply. It’s time for the county to cut bait and stop appealing stormwater runoff regulations.