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Landowners express anger over water rights issue that blocks their ability to build

By Shannen Kuest
Skagit Valley Herald

The meeting was called by the Skagit chapter of the Citizens’ Alliance for Property Rights.

About 120 people filled the American Legion Hall on Tuesday night to discuss the water and property rights issues facing Skagit County. Among them were property owners and Alliance members, who took the state’s 2001 instream flow rule to task.

When some at the meeting suggested building on their properties without county permission, one audience member shouted, “To hell with the county!”

County commissioners Lisa Janicki and Ron Wesen attended the meeting.

Mount Vernon Realtor and Alliance member Mike Newman said county residents should somehow prevent the county commissioners from attending events at the Swinomish Casino until the issue could be resolved.

“We should let the commissioners know that we don’t want the county involved with the Swinomish at all,” Newman said.

Swinomish Indian Tribal Community Chairman Brian Cladoosby could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

The commissioners did not address comments about the tribe at the meeting. But Wesen told the Skagit Valley Herald that the tribe is a significant part of the Skagit County community.

“The thing people need to understand is that tribal members are constituents and are definitely supportive of the community,” he said. “We all have to live here.”

Alliance members argued the instream flow rule interferes with residents’ property rights and is costing private landowners thousands in lost property value.

Concrete resident Vernon McCarty owns a home on 2.5 acres, but said his water supply has been deemed interruptable by the instream flow rule.

“We’ve lost about $150,000 in property value because there’s always that threat that our water supply could be cut off,” McCarty said.

At the meeting, several landowners suggested their next step would be to build without permits.

Wesen strongly advised against such a move.

“I definitely understand the frustration from property owners, but building without a permit could result in several consequences including a fine or a blemish on their property records,” he said. “That said, I don’t think it’s fair for people to not have an answer to their problem.”

Water issues have been a hot topic in Skagit County for decades. The state Department of Ecology contends the instream flow rule is meant to protect aquatic habitat for salmon and other species.

Speakers at the meeting criticized what they called Ecology’s “false science.”

Newman said the water shortage is artificially created.

“We are dealing with science that is wrong and government agencies and bureaucrats that know the science is wrong, but don’t care,” Newman said. “Ecology’s science is at best conflicting, and at worst it’s criminally negligent.”

Ecology officials maintain that flow levels established by the instream rule are the ecologically based minimum flows necessary to do so.

Alliance members encouraged those at the meeting to donate toward the legal fees of the Foxes, a Skagit County couple who took the county to court after it refused to issue a building permit until the couple provided proof of legal access to water.

Ecology and the Swinomish tribe testified in support of the instream flow rule. The ongoing case is being heard in Snohomish County because Skagit County judges have recused themselves.

Concrete resident Sandra Mitchell said the instream flow rule affects her because she has a creek flowing through her property.

“At this point, the conflict is not about people getting along,” she said. “It’s about state agencies being in control.”

Many at the meeting looked to the county for answers, but Wesen said most were beyond the county’s scope of authority.

Twenty years ago, the county couldn’t predict the fight over water rights that has exploded in recent years, he said.

“As time went on, the rules changed,” he said. “It’s not that we changed them.”

The county, Ecology and the Swinomish tribe are still working toward a solution, Wesen said, but for many local landowners, that solution can’t come fast enough.

— Reporter Shannen Kuest, 360-416-2145, skuest@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Shannen_SVH, Facebook.com/ShannenReporter

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