Friday, August 26, 2005

Another champion driven into silence

"All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing." - Edmund Burke

On its face, few people can argue with this quote from Edmund Burke, but it's not accurate. It should have stipulated that it takes a lot of good men and women to defeat evil. A handful of good men and women cannot do it alone, because they are generally outnumbered, outfinanced, and bound by laws and ethics that those on the dark side ignore.

For over a decade and a half, Friends of the Law fought land use actions by King County aimed at helping a major developer build a massive housing project in the rural area east of Redmond. When the law got in the way of the developer's plans, the county rewrote the law when possible, and simply ignored the law when necessary. When those actions were challenged in the courts by Friends, judges simply ignored the wrongdoing and refused to rule on it, or they simply changed the laws by inventing new interpretations to allow and excuse the wrongdoing. Some even ruled against Friends while refusing to even explain their ruling. Former King County Superior Court Judge Marcia Pechman was rewarded with appointment to the Federal Bench despite such a ruling in a Friends' case. (Remember that judges in Washington are all elected, and subject to the same concerns surrounding financing of campaigns and "avoidance of well-funded challengers".)

During the early years when the community was ignited and was supporting the defense of their rural community, funding was easily obtained to fight this corruption within King County - $250,000 during the first 5 years. But as the years advanced and the litigation was appealed and reappealed again and again, that interest and support faded. The efforts to stop Redmond Ridge and Trilogy ended earlier this year, after more than 10 years, when the state Supreme Court simply redefined the Growth Management Act and allowed an "incomplete" and "illegal" subdivision application, that was accepted by the county in 1989, to vest these urban developments on land that the court ruled was, "characterized by urban growth" even if it was covered by nothing but trees and wildlife. The court effectively gutted the GMA by allowing counties to designate any land as urban, simply by vesting a subdivision application, even if such an application itself was illegal and/or incomplete.

(This specific subdivision application was challenged and litigated for years, all the way to the same supreme court several years ago, with that court, along with the lower courts, simply refusing to even rule on it. The courts at every level of the system knew the consequences to King County and these developments, and they unanimously turned their backs on the law and the citizens challenging the legality of this bogus subdivision application.)

When Redmond Ridge East entered hearings earlier this year, Friends of the Law took it on to support 5 courageous whistleblowers from within King County DOT who had alleged a pattern of wrongdoing, and even illegal acts by their colleagues in DOT for developers, and specifically for Redmond Ridge East (a new 800-home development on top of Redmond Ridge and Trilogy that are already gridlocking area roads). Without sufficient funding from the community, Friends also did it going into further debt to their attorney.

Despite the overwhelming victory in those hearings and the ruling from the Hearing Examiner that King County has engaged in "arbitrary and capricious" acts for developers, now everyone is suing the examiner or appealing to the county council, even other county agencies, like DOT and DDES, that should be considered nearly "employed" by the development machine . With the right judges and pressures on the County Council, even these "arbitrary and capricious" actions will likely be excused.

Friends is calling it quits. They're settling with the developer for pennies to pay off their outstanding legal bills. Sadly, to do so they are agreeing to silence themselves from any future involvement with Redmond Ridge East, selling their First Amendments rights to pay off their lawyer who failed to win any lasting victories in more than 10 years of effort. They're also ending any litigation challenging Redmond Ridge East, and with their exit, no one else can challenge Redmond Ridge East in court given that all appeal deadlines have expired.

What is the lesson learned in this debacle? Well, in 2 words it can be summed up by the phrase "business model". This is the business model employed by developers and government to get what they want.

At first, every alleged improper or illegal act was challenged by Friends. As the shear number of alleged improper or illegal acts by King County grew, only the significant ones could be challenged. With the help of a special "Loser Pays" law enacted as a gift for the growth lobby in 1994, which was designed to shield governments from challenges to their improper and even illegal land use actions, many challenges could not even be appealed when superior court judges ruled against Friends, or refused to rule at all. Even when Friends won victories in court, as they did in the Supreme Court in 2000, these "elected" judges never made a ruling that made anything final, always remanding the cases back to other jurisdictions, while leaving the door open for easy appeals and further delays. As the multiple litigation threads continued for years, it became nearly irrelevant, as much of Redmond Ridge and Trilogy was being constructed, making any findings against the county even a more unrealistic expectation from elected judges concerned for their own careers.

In time, Friends was forced into significant debt, while King County and Quadrant continued with tax dollars, or profits from grossly inflated housing sales in these developments to fund their appeals and challenges. Friends of the Law wasn't funded with taxpayer dollars like county agencies when they litigated the defense of their actions. DOT, DDES and the PA's Office have an unlimited pot of taxpayer dollars at their disposal, but for Friends it became less and less about opposition, and more and more about how to repay their lawyer.

Friends and other area opponents of this incestuous relationship between government and developers now fully understand the developers' business model, which is to litigate, litigate and litigate until opposition is put out of business. Then seal the deal with a few pennies thrown their way to silence them forever, just to clear the way for anything in the future. In this case the settlement will probably not even equate to the profit from one house sold in Redmond Ridge East.

In the case of Redmond Ridge, Trilogy and Redmond Ridge east, King County and the courts were fully engaged on the side of this developer and against the community from the beginning. You don't have to believe me, but those who have lived this know it to be true. And with the mitigation and fee revenues to the county that fund departments like DOT and DDES, why should anyone be surprised that they would ignore citizens, or even engage in "dishonest or "arbitrary and capricious" actions that benefit their real providers? One thing is certain, though, when government and the courts side with a developer, it's an unbeatable combination. Don't ever be fooled into believing that the law comes first! And don't ever believe that government will put your interests above those or their "paying" customers!

I was never a member of Friends of the Law, but was part of a short-lived organization called "The Coalition for Public Trust". That group dissolved after 4 years, once we learned that the "public trust" in government was unattainable and undeserved in King County. Under the leadership of Gary Locke, then Ron Sims, and the rest of the cabal of developer-owned "public servants" and officials, King County deserves nothing but disdain for their repeated acts of bias, actions contrary to the facts, and dishonesty.

Goodbye Friends of the Law. You may not have won, but you've helped a few to understand just how bad the whole land use system is in King County. You pushed every button and challenged every branch of government to do the right thing to no avail. You've proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that government can be bought by the right special interest. Your persistence and efforts are appreciated, even if they resulted in a series of legal precedents - invented to help this developer - that have perverted state and county land use laws. No one could have known just how far government would go to satisfy a corporation like Weyerhaeuser.

We do now!

And when King County or Olympia comes to us and says they need a half billion more dollars for roads and a couple hundred million for schools to support growth in this area, will people in King County and throughout the state understand why they are being blackmailed into paying for it and not Weyerhaeuser? When we are forced to pay for it, it will be because Weyerhaeuser will already have their billion dollars of profit in the bank earning interest! Less, of course, their generous contributions to our elected officials.

PS-
Almost every person involved with this fight from the beginning is gone. Most moved away when they saw the futility, or simply gave up. Some stayed with this optimistic hope that it was only a matter of time before it would all be exposed, but it hasn't. The press won't even cover it anymore; tired of the story and too lazy to investigate. Maybe they're simply too afraid of the developers' lawyers - they should be.

Now Friends has joined the silence. Bought off like Redmond 9 years ago. With the last of the organized opposition gone now, King County is free to hand it all to the developers, while they work to find more ways to take our money to subsidize the billion dollar profits of the companies that are their real task-masters, like Weyerhaeuser and others in the King County growth machine.

1 comment:

Joe said...

Weyerhaeuser/Quandrant got a sale price to silence FOTL.

The terms of their settlement and having FOTL out of the way for a couple hundred thousand is worth millions in to Weyerhaeuser!!!

It is a shame that a 50,000 debt to a lawyer got in the way of a fight against corruption in rural King County.

Thank you to Joseph Elfelt and everyone who was involved with FOTL and CPT for all of your years of community service!