Development big issue in county council race

By Warren Cornwall

Herald Writer

The fight over growth and development has a new front line: the race for the District 5 seat on the Snohomish County Council.

On one side is incumbent Democrat Dave Somers, a former fisheries biologist and proponent of stronger controls on development.

On the other is Republican Jeff Sax, an engineer who warns that the county is over-regulating property owners. Sax once accused his opponent of being a socialist, and now calls him an "extreme environmentalist."

The two disagree over other subjects as well, including what levels of government service should be expected in rural areas, what the county should do to relieve congestion and whether property tax increases are excessive.

But their positions on development, and the backing they get from different interests, present some of the strongest contrasts. The county’s central role on a range of land-use issues puts the council in a strong position to influence those policies.

Also joining the race is Don Polson, chairman of the county Libertarian Party.

The winner will get a four-year-term on the council, with a starting salary of about $76,000.

In his first term on the council, the 48-year-old Somers has become a favorite of neighborhood groups and environmentalists for his positions on development issues.

He voted to lift a cap on fees charged for new developments and funneled to schools to compensate for the impact new growth has classrooms. He says he would support an increase in a similar fee targeted to road construction.

Somers also pushed for the stiffer regulations on planned residential developments, or PRDs, a type of housing preferred by developers partly because it allows more homes to be built on a given piece of land.

The fee increases would help offset the costs of serving the new residents, and the PRD reform helped prevent out-of-control development in some areas, said Somers, who in 1997 campaigned partly on a pledge to control growth.

"I feel like I’ve been right on track with what I said I was going to do," he said

Sax, 39, has been critical of many of those same measures, charging that they have bound property owners in more red tape and pushed the cost of housing higher.

That sentiment, he said, arises partly from his own three-year dispute with the county over an effort to try to build two homes on a 10-acre parcel his father-in-law owns.

But it’s not just a personal matter, he said. Sax opposes an increase in traffic mitigation fees, saying the higher costs find their way into the price paid by home buyers and can drive up assessments of neighboring homes, which affects property taxes.

Other regulations aimed at protecting salmon habitat have infringed on people’s ability to use their land, he said.

"The out-of-control regulatory environment for building any residential development in Snohomish County is adding an enormous cost to the property tax burden we face," he said.

The land-use regulations are problematic enough, he said, that he would back repealing the state’s Growth Management Act.

The 1990 law is the cornerstone of the state’s current growth management efforts. Property-rights advocates have complained the law creates too much red tape, while growth-control advocates have turned to it as a tool for slowing or channeling growth.

In an April fund-raising letter, Sax laid out a stark contrast.

"This contest will be waged against a committed socialist/environmentalist who would prefer to see all land in the public trust," the signed letter stated.

Sax has since backed away from that claim, saying it was sent based on poor advice from a consultant. But he remained strongly critical of Somers’ stance on land regulations.

"I think he’s an extreme environmentalist," he said. "I don’t believe he holds private property very dear."

Somers dismissed Sax’s claims in the letter as "ridiculous."

"I believe we can have economic growth and a healthy environment. If that makes me an environmental extremist, then I am," Somers said.

The Libertarian candidate, Polson, a 58-year-old manager at a Monroe packaging company, echoed Sax’s concerns about land use regulations.

"If I own property, I should be trusted to do what I want with it," Polson said.

The positions of the major party backers are reflected in their campaign donors.

Environmental and labor groups have made major contributions to Somers’ war chest, including the maximum $1,200 from the local political action committee Citizens for Environmental Responsibility. All told, he has raised $37,000, and had roughly $1,600 unspent in mid-August, according to state campaign filings.

Developers have poured money into Sax’s race. The largest is a $1,200 contribution from the Affordable Housing Council, the political arm of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. He has raised $53,000. His campaign had a $5,800 deficit, according to the mid-August campaign filings.

You can call Herald Writer Warren Cornwall at 425-339-3463 or send e-mail to cornwall@heraldnet.com.

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