Jan. 12: Dems offer a new proposal as 2018 session opens
The Legislature has convened its 2018 session, and Hirst negotiations continue. Although control of the Senate has changed, the Senate Republican Caucus continues to have a voice because it has insisted on a Hirst fix before it will provide votes for a capital budget. This public-works construction budget is of importance to the entire state, urban and rural, and requires the Legislature to pass a bill to authorize bonds. The bond bill requires a 60 percent vote of both chambers of the Legislature, meaning the assent of both parties is needed. The Senate Agriculture, Water and Natural Resources Committee voted Thursday for a Democratic proposal (SB 6091) that would allow well-drilling to resume, but would impose new costs on property owners and new restrictions on water usage. Meanwhile, the governor, in his State of the State address Jan. 9, failed to mention the need to pass a Hirst fix this session.
July 20: Legislature adjourns without Hirst fix
After lengthy negotiations, House Democratic leaders refused to budge on a Hirst fix, and the Legislature adjourned for the year without taking action. The Senate position remained consistent during negotiations — that the Supreme Court’s Hirst ruling should be overturned, and pre-existing water law should be restored. But urban House leaders sided with environmental interests and tribes and offered merely to delay implementation of the ruling, with a vague promise to continue considering the issue in the future. Delaying implementation would not have prevented reductions in property values, because property values depend on sustained access to water. Also, projects not completed within two years would have fallen under the new Hirst requirements. In addition, House Democratic leaders added to their demands in its final offer at the bargaining table, insisting that the Department of Ecology and Indian tribes be given the ability to veto any individual well project across the state — without giving Washington the same ability to block projects on reservation land.
On the final day of the session, minority House Republicans lined up enough votes to pass the Senate Hirst-fix bill in the House, with votes from the Republican caucus and from individual Democratic members. But when House Democratic leaders learned of the move, they chose to remain in their caucus room and refused to take their seats on the floor. By failing to convene for session in the House, the tactic prevented a vote.
Because of the failure to pass a Hirst fix, the Senate did not pass a capital budget. The $4 billion public-works construction budget provides money for projects across the state, and would have provided funding to implement the Hirst fix. Because the capital budget can be passed at a later time, the fact that it did not pass before adjournment keeps up pressure to pass a Hirst fix.
WHAT IS HIRST?
In October 2016 the state Supreme Court issued a ruling in a Whatcom County water case that overturned state statutes and decades of water law. The Legislature intended for rural property owners to be able to drill small household-sized wells without obtaining water rights permits. But the court ruling imposes costly new burdens on property owners and local governments and threatens property rights statewide.
If the decision in the Hirst case is allowed to stand, it will have a far-reaching effect on the state’s rural economy, property values, housing costs and property taxes. The Senate Republican Caucus’ response was SB 5239, which restores the traditional balance between state and local governments for managing water and allows property owners to develop their land. This was the only Hirst bill to pass either chamber during the 2017 session. The House took no action.
PROTECTING PROPERTY RIGHTS:
Here are the key pieces of legislation advanced in 2017 in the interest of a sensible solution.
- Senate Bill 5239 – comprehensive fix to problem — cosponsors include Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.
Passed four times by state Senate, most recently June 29, keeping the issue alive through the final day of the 2017 session.
- House Bill 1459 – would have required state and local governments to consider actual groundwater impact — sponsored by Vincent Buys, R-Lynden; co-sponsors included Luanne Van Werven, R-Lynden. Died in House committee.
- House Bill 1460 – would have made water rights transfers easier – sponsored by Vincent Buys, R-Lynden, co-sponsors included Luanne Van Werven, R-Lynden. Died in House committee.
- House Bill 1348 – would have given users first priority for water — co-sponsors included Vincent Buys, R-Lynden. Died in House committee.
- House Bill 1349 – would have declared small wells have minimal impact — co-sponsors included Vincent Buys, R-Lynden. Died in House committee.
- House Bill 1382 – would have prohibited denial of small-well permits without good reason — co-sponsors included Vincent Buys, R-Lynden. Died in House committee.
July 1: Hirst remains issue as Legislature continues its session
The Senate continues to insist on passage of a Hirst fix as the Legislature remains in session past the start of a new fiscal year. The Senate insists on a solution to the problem created by last year’s Supreme Court decision before a full capital budget is passed. Though the Senate has offered a compromise measure, the House continues to insist that rural landowners pay hefty “mitigation” fees before obtaining authorization to dill new wells.
June 29: Senate passes Hirst bill for fourth time.
The Senate passed SB 5239 for the fourth time, keeping the issue alive during the Legislature’s third special session.
June 13: Senate passes Hirst bill for third time
The Senate passed SB 5239 for the third time, keeping the issue alive during the Legislature’s second special session.
May 2: Senate passes Hirst bill for second time
For the second time, the Senate voted for a bill that would protect the right of rural property owners to drill household wells. This vote demonstrates the Senate’s determination to see the issue resolved before the Legislature adjourns for 2017.
The Senate vote kept Senate Bill 5239 alive for further consideration during the Legislature’s then-current special session. The bill overturns the state Supreme Court’s Hirst decision last fall imposing enormous burdens on rural property owners who need to tap groundwater in order to obtain building permits and develop their land. Whatcom County officials also have balked at these new requirements, imposing a six-month moratorium on new building permits dependent on wells.
The bill originally was passed by the Senate in February, but it was bottled up in a House committee and did not receive a vote before the Legislature’s regular session ended April 23
March 29: Senate fix denied vote in House committee
A Senate fix to the state’s household-well crisis failed to receive a vote in a House committee as a key deadline passed, but the issue remains alive as long as the Legislature remains in session.
The decision was a big disappointment for those of us who had made it a priority to fix last year’s Supreme Court ruling in the Hirst case. We will continue to work for a solution this year, and remain open to compromise. But no compromise should violate the right of property owners to develop their land.
The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee chose not to take a vote Wednesday on Senate Bill 5239, which would restore the state’s traditional water law. Wednesday was a deadline for House policy committees to pass Senate bills.
Feb. 28: Bill saving household wells passes Senate
A bill protecting the rights of property owners to drill wells and build on their own land passed the full Senate Tuesday night. Our plan, Senate Bill 5239, would restore the rules that existed before a state Supreme Court decision last fall imposed enormous burdens on rural landowners who seek building permits. The Senate stood up for property owners and property rights with a vote of 28-21. Now it’s up to the state House to do the same.
See my speech: The household-well issue has been one of my top priorities since the session began. In my floor speech, I talked about the frustration of thousands of property owners who purchased land with the understanding they would be able to build.
Feb. 23: Senate plan to save household wells moves forward
The Senate’s plan to save household wells received an important OK Thursday from the Senate Ways and Means Committee. There’s just one more stop, the Senate Rules Committee, before the bill receives a vote on the Senate floor.
Senate Bill 5239 restores the right of rural property owners to develop small, family-sized wells without enormous bureaucratic burdens.
Feb. 21: Hearing makes compelling case for household wells, property owners
The Senate’s effort to save household wells was highlighted at a hearing Feb. 21 before the Senate Ways and Means Committee. Property owners from Whatcom County and elsewhere said they have been devastated by the Supreme Court’s decision last fall that took away their right to drill wells — and with it, their right to build.
You can see the full hearing by clicking here. For highlights, click on links below.
“We purchased a piece of property and closed in September. …We were ready to go for a building permit, and then the Hirst decision came down Oct. 6. …Now we have a pretty much worthless piece of property.”
“There are tens of thousands of people who don’t even know yet that they’ve been harmed.”
“I am begging you, literally begging you to pass this bill. I deserve to build the house I set out [to build].”
Skagit County’s experience:
— $20 million in lost property value
— $270,000 in property taxes shifted to other taxpayers
— $157 million in lost construction
“We think this is coming to a county near you.”