Read more about the what the chair of the Senate’s water-related committee, Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, has been doing to help rural families suffering as a result of the flawed Hirst decision.
Since the regular session, Warnick who sponsored the Hirst-fix legislation, Senate Bill 5239, has been working to elevate the issue and keep rural families at the fore of discussions in Olympia.
- In late 2016, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling resulting from a challenge to rules in Whatcom County relating to the Growth Management Act.
- The ruling turned decades of water law on its head by requiring local jurisdictions, such as counties, to make legal determinations on water availability before issuing a building permit, something the state Dept. of Ecology already had done.
- Dissenters on the court noted, ““The majority’s decision hinges on an interpretation of RCW 19.27.097 that is unsupported by the plain language of the statute, precedent, or common sense.”
- Counties and cities do not have the financial resources or technical expertise to make these judgements.
- This effectively halted home building in rural parts of the state by requiring costly and duplicative studies to make legal determinations of water availability before a small, household well can be drilled.
- When the 2017 legislative session began, the impacts of the decision became apparent, as counties and cities, did not know how to handle the decision. Counties took different approaches including building permit moratoriums, creating confusion.
- The Senate Majority acted to address the problem. Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake, introduced Senate Bill 5239, a bipartisan proposal to clarify the law and give certainty to property owners and local jurisdictions.
- During public hearings on the proposed Hirst fix legislation, property owners from around the state pled for a solution, some spending their life’s savings to build a home on a property only to be told they couldn’t and facing the possibility that the property had lost its value.
- The Senate passed E2SSB 5239 (An Act Relating to Ensuring that Water is Available to Support Development) on February 28, by a vote of 28-21. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources.
- The House ANR Committee held a public hearing on the bill on March 28, one day before policy committee cutoff for bills from the opposite chamber.
- On March 29 – cutoff – the House committee failed to vote on the bill, meaning that the bill did not move out of the committee according to the required legislative timeline for policy bills.
It obviously has not been easy for lawmakers to come up with legislation that fixes the constitutional issue about school levies raised in the McCleary ruling, treats students and taxpayers in 295 diverse districts equitably and responds to long-standing compensation concerns from teachers and district officials. If it was, the Education Equality Act passed by the Senate more than a week ago wouldn’t still be all by itself on the negotiating table.
Fortunately, another Supreme Court decision looming over our state – the Hirst ruling, from October – is easier to fix than McCleary. There’s no good reason why we can’t have an agreement in place as soon as the end of February.
To put it simply, Hirst complicates the process of permitting a residential water well, and complications mean more cost – tens of thousands of dollars more, potentially, which discourages people from buying land, and property owners from building or selling. Besides derailing the dreams of families all around our state, the ruling means less activity for local lenders and the real-estate and construction sectors.
I remember how a dozen years ago, without warning, the real-estate and construction sectors got hot and began pouring money into the state treasury. In contrast, there’s been ample warning about the chilling effect Hirst is having in those areas of our economy, and what it means for state revenues.
Our children are still being schooled while work on McCleary proceeds, and whatever agreement we reach won’t have an effect on the current school year anyway. Hirst is different, because fewer homes are being built and fewer property transactions are occurring while the Legislature works on a response. The economic damage has already begun, especially in rural Washington.
I know of two bills in each legislative chamber that would address Hirst. One House bill and one Senate bill have bipartisan sponsorship – and in my opinion, represent the straighter path to a solution. The bipartisan Senate bill has already won committee support, while the House committee may push both of its measures ahead.
Not many issues hit all 39 counties in the gut the way Hirst has, and a legislative fix could start bringing relief immediately. It could, and should, be the first major bill to come out of this session.