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I-933: Property rights or property wrongs?

Conservationists begin their campaign against a hot-button statewide initiative.

A coalition of conservation groups are taking aim at a property rights initiative they fear could attach a hefty price tag to wetland buffers and other environmental safeguards.

“Initiative 933 would be a disaster for Bainbridge and the state,” said Bainbridge Conservation Voters member Bob Burkholder. “Developers would make a buck while sacrificing community values and saying ‘to hell with the long term implications.’”

Island environmental activists will team with various regional groups, including the West Sound Conservation Council and Kitsap Citizens for Responsible Planning, to kick-off a campaign against I-933 Saturday in Bremerton. The event will feature speakers and will outline methods to mobilize communities against the measure.

“The initiative favors developers who want to skirt around growth management safeguards so they can go into any community and build a box store or a subdivision anywhere they want,” said Beth Wilson, president of West Sound Conservation Council. “Voters must hear the real story behind this initiative.”

Dubbed the “Property Fairness” initiative by supporters and patterned after Oregon’s Measure 37, I-933 would require cities and counties to pay land owners for environmental laws and zoning rules that affect their property.

Island property rights activist Gary Tripp believes the initiative is “a long overdue correction to many legislative abuses” at the state level and in the city’s Critical Areas Ordinance, which sets guidelines for buffers near wetlands, fish-bearing streams and other sensitive areas.

“The city has removed the right to use private property (in order) to provide public benefits,” said Tripp. “It’s created wildlife (areas) and open space at the private property owner’s expense. If the city wants wildlife habitat, it should buy land for that purpose.”

Opponents and supporters agree I-933 would make many existing protections beyond the budget of local governments.

“The city has no money to pay anybody for any property,” said Tripp.

“It’d make the critical areas ordinance null and void and just meaningless,” said Burkholder. “Paying anybody for a 100-foot setback would cost a hell of a lot of money.”

In Oregon, Measure 37 has triggered heated legal battles and has swamped local governments with almost 3,000 claims from landowners citing property value losses or unfair restrictions imposed by environmental regulations restricting development.

“They have to approve these claim applications because cities can’t afford not to,” said Burkholder. “There’s just not enough public money.”

Measure 37 was approved by more than 60 percent of Oregon’s voters in 2004. The measure hit a bump when it was deemed unconstitutional in a lower court in 2005, but was resuscitated this year with an Oregon Supreme Court ruling in the measure’s favor.

The Wash­ing­ton Farm Bureau, which drafted I-933, aims to avoid Measure 37’s legal complications by calling for compensation for land use rules that restricted use or lowered property value after January 1996.

Measure 37 was considered discriminatory by an Oregon lower court because it determined payment to property owners based on when they purchased their land.

The core argument in support of I-933 is based on the Washington state Constitution, according to the farm bureau’s president, Steve Appel.

“Our state constitution requires that property owners be treated fairly,” he said. “Our property fairness initiative would require that state and local governments follow the constitution.”

Appel cites a portion of the constitution that states “No private property shall be taken or damaged for public or private use without just compensation having been first made.”

But Burkholder argues that wetland and stream buffers restrict only a portion of a property’s use and are not an infringement on the state constitution.

“It’s not a ‘taking’ if you still have 70 percent use of your property,” he said. “If its ‘eminent domain’ and they take everything, it’s entirely right to pay the market price. But this is not a taking. A property owner can still develop as long as it’s not on a wetland or a stream setback.”

Burkholder helped fight a similar state measure in 1995 and hopes Washington voters will also quash this latest effort to dismantle land use regulations.

“It keeps rearing its ugly head,” he said. “But we can point to Oregon this time and to the many people who feel duped into voting for (Measure 37).”

Burkholder fears an island ruled by sprawl and unrestricted growth should voters approve I-933 in November.

“Boy, I tell you, the possibility of it passing scares the bejesus out of me.”

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A chorus of ‘No’

Local conservation groups will hold the “No on I-933 Grassroots Kick Off” event at the Bremerton waterfront, near the USS Turner Joy, at 11 a.m. on Saturday.

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