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COLUMN ONE : Northwest's Landmark Land War : Washington's voters could make government pay for any action that hurts property values. That seems Draconian to local officials, but not to a farmer whose retirement dream is now a regulation nightmare.


PARKLAND, Wash. — Herbert and Eve Tollefson bought their eight acres in these forested hills to have a place to raise cattle and grow hay. Theirs was a small haven of rolling pastures and ash groves where children could hide on long summer evenings.

Then state Route 512 was built out from Tacoma, and the county dug a drainage channel to handle the diverted flows from Washington's perpetual drizzle. The ditch backed up; the ash grove and much of the southern pasture turned into a bog.

A few years ago, Herbert Tollefson was trying to make a path through the muck to get his tractor out to the back pasture. The county issued a stop-work order when he started dumping wood chips into the ooze. The bog, they said, was now a wetland.

With a third of his land a state-protected resource area, Tollefson has given up farming. The county recently responded by canceling the land's agricultural status and demanding $8,000 in back taxes. And with each advance of the autumn rains, Tollefson, now 77, watches his retirement slip away. "Basically, we've been losing the use of our land, inch by inch," he said, standing ankle-deep in the soggy plain that once was his pasture.

Stories like that of the Tollefsons are common in the communities of rural Washington, where moves to control growth and protect what remains of the Northwest's wild meadows and pine forests have planted the seeds of rebellion in the hearts of landowners facing a daunting era of regulatory controls.

The campaign for property rights has gained a foothold throughout rural America. But nowhere has its scope been so sweeping as in Washington, where a referendum on the Nov. 7 ballot proposes the most extensive property-rights measure ever attempted in the nation: a law requiring landowners to be compensated when any government regulation for public benefit diminishes the value of their land, no matter how small the loss. Economic impact assessments would require government regulators to seek the alternative least costly to private property.

Current law in most states allows property owners to sue the government if their property has been diminished by regulation, but only if the "taking" is substantial, heavily reducing its value or rendering it nearly useless.

The Washington state measure, which could cost local governments up to $11 billion in compensation costs, has sparked alarm among city officials, who see the possibility of undermining a generation of environmental regulations and, ultimately, a blow to the ability to control who builds what where.

Timber companies, developers and real estate organizations have poured nearly $1 million into the campaign, while some cities are considering temporary suspension of their land-use regulations to avoid the threat of lawsuits. Many cities expect to spend 10% or more of their budgets implementing the measure--or simply abandon regulation of wetlands, shoreline protection, stream-side buffers, habitat conservation and setbacks that become too expensive.

"Every person who's examined this has seen that Washington state's, on a number of scores, is the most extreme 'takings' bill proposed in any state, ever," said David Socolow of the American Resources Information Network, which is documenting the progress of property-rights legislation across the country.

Nationwide Battle

Referendum 48, originally drafted as a voter initiative, cleared both houses of the Washington Legislature earlier this year before a panicked coalition of public interest and environmental groups collected 231,000 signatures in 77 days to send it back to the voters.

The ballot measure comes at a time when compensation for public "takings"--private property that is so regulated by government that it is effectively "taken"--has become a nationwide rallying cry with bipartisan roots. Compensation legislation introduced as part of the Republicans' "contract with America" cleared the House of Representatives and went to the Senate for hearings last week.

The House bill would require property owners to be compensated when certain federal laws diminish the value of their land by 20% or more, a measure that the Clinton Administration says would cost $28 billion over the next seven years.

Texas and Florida have already adopted far-reaching property-rights legislation, along with 16 other states that have some form of "takings" measures. A statewide ballot measure was rejected in Arizona last year. California has seen 17 different property-rights compensation bills introduced since 1993, none of them successful, though Gov. Pete Wilson has ordered state agencies to take the impact on private property into consideration when drafting regulations.

Only in Washington is there an initiative that would allow property owners to seek compensation for any reduction in property values for almost any regulation other than removing a public nuisance. Opponents are calling it a "legislative truck bomb."

Details in Dispute

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