Inslee conveys that our rural areas’ concerns aren’t very important

Our state’s rural areas have been left in the lurch by the state Supreme Court’s 2016 Hirst decision that greatly raises costs on wells for homes. Critics of the decision have complained that the court has stepped beyond its proper role and is acting like a policy-setting body.

The court’s decision effectively halted homebuilding in many counties’ rural areas. Families who invested in land and building materials have been stopped by county officials.

Contractors and construction workers have been idled. Property values have plunged because of the uncertainty over well approval.

Inslee’s comments unhelpful
Legislators from rural areas are anxious to pass a bill that would fix Hirst and clarify for the court how wells can be approved. Gov. Inslee threw cold water on their efforts last week.

He may have been trying to emphasize that K-12 funding comes first for legislators. The way he chose to make that point, however, came across to rural leaders as Inslee saying a Hirst fix isn’t important.

That impression is exacerbated by the fact that Olympia Democrats have not been eager to discuss Hirst (and a House bill on the topic didn’t even clear committee). That might be due to their allies’ preferences. The fact is, some environmental groups love Hirst. They want to stop any growth in rural areas, and this court decision effectively does that.

For them, a Hirst fix certainly is not a priority. Inslee is close with these groups. Will he act as governor for all of Washington, or simply stick with his political allies?

Some just shrug their shoulders
All of Washington’s 39 counties have rural areas, but not all counties are equally affected. Hirst is especially bad news for primarily rural counties, which have limited tax bases. The Spokesman-Review editorialized, “People who purchased property under the old rules now face the prospect of not being able to build on it. Plummeting property values would also impact builders, lenders and county tax collections.”

Hirst isn’t just unfair to families currently trying to build homes. In one fell swoop, the decision severely devalued many people’s properties, but thanks to the usual property valuation cycle, those property owners could end up paying taxes on outdated higher valuations. Rep. Joe Schmick (R-Colfax) pointed out in a radio interview:

“What Hirst has done is that, you may have gone out, Glenn, and bought a piece of ground and paid $100,000 for it, going to build a house out there. All of a sudden you find out, now you can’t put an exempt well on your property.

“That value now, instead of $100,000, may only be 20 [or] 10 thousand dollars, because you can’t build. It’s unbuildable on that.”

Schmick has a bill that would require all county assessors to do new valuations on Hirsteffected properties, but it shouldn’t have to come to that. This decision’s impacts are far out of whack with the amounts of water we’re talking about here. Madilynne Clark of the Washington Policy Center notes, “The cumulative effect of Washington’s permit-exempt wells, during the most water intensive time of the year, amounts to less than one percent.”

Legislators ought to come to an agreement that protects water users without unduly burdening families or halting all rural growth. Yes, education funding is important. So is this, Gov. Inslee.

We all know serious budget negotiations involve just a handful of the 147 legislators. Maybe a good chunk of the rest of them could use that time to hammer out an agreement to remedy the unfortunate consequences of this court decision.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.