County council silent on beverage ordinance

  • Written by Madeline Coats

After a multi-decade-long effort by local organizations and community members to preserve Sammamish Valley farmland, the Washington state Growth Management Hearings Board (GMHB) unanimously invalidated the Adult Beverage Ordinance May 26.

King County Council member Kathy Lambert, sponsor of the legislation, was unavailable to comment after repeated attempts to reach her went unanswered. Council member Claudia Balducci, a longtime supporter of the ordinance, also didn't respond to numerous calls and emails.

“Their silence speaks volumes—it seems they are not willing to actively defend the ordinance they co-sponsored,” said Serena Glover, executive director at Friends of Sammamish Valley (FoSV).

The ordinance, put forward by the King County Council, was found in violation on a dozen grounds related to the Growth Management Act (GMA) and the State Environmental Management Act (SEPA). The board remanded the ordinance back to the county for a proper environmental study, which was never completed in the first place. 

“There have been a number of attempts over the last three to four decades to pave over the Sammamish Valley,” Glover said. “Each one of those attempts was defeated.”

In a close 5-4 vote last December, the council adopted the updated ordinance in an effort to tighten up regulations around winery, brewery and distillery businesses. Glover said the measure was another attempt by a small “handful of violators and speculators” to convert residential properties and farmland into commercial uses.

“We should not be paving over our farmland,” she said. “It’s not a commodity. You can move bars, but you can’t move the farmland. We have some of the most fertile farmland in the United States and we need that land for local food resilience.” 

Glover said FoSV worked jointly with Futurewise to file a petition to the board, siting numerous areas of concern. A large coalition of people, organizations and businesses compiled over 1,000 pages of information for the legal record, she added.

In his weekly newsletter, Council member Rod Dembrowski said he voted against the legislation because of the relaxed protections for rural and agricultural lands. He said the board called out King County for repeatedly ignoring the SEPA’s required analysis for potential environmental impacts caused by the new ordinance.

“The failure by the county to make a good faith effort to comply with SEPA is disheartening,” Dembrowski said. “King County has a long and strong track record of protecting our rural and agricultural lands.” 

Council members Claudia Balducci and Kathy Lambert have both advocated for the legislation since its inception. 

During the December vote, Lambert said the council has taken significant steps to protect agricultural lands. She added that the new code would protect more land than the current code.

At the same meeting, Balducci said the existing code, which was adopted in 2003, fails to regulate the growing industry in King County. The code contains many ambiguities that make it difficult for businesses to follow and enforce, she added.

Glover claims the existing code worked in the first place yet lacked enforcement for the small handful of violators. She said the vast majority of adult beverage businesses, both inside the city and in the rural area, are operating legally. 

According to the existing code, retail drinking establishments are not allowed in rural and agricultural areas. All sales of winery, brewery or distillery products are limited to products produced on-site. 

Each of the businesses in violation of the existing code transport their products from far-away facilities, Glover said. The existing ordinance allows all kinds of remote tasting rooms inside urban growth boundaries, she added. 

“The infrastructure for commercial businesses does not exist in the rural areas around the farmland,” she said.

Other citizens have consistently expressed concern about bars and tasting rooms in rural, residential neighborhoods. Glover listed issues with noise, lighting, safety, sanitation, parking lots, turn lanes, sidewalks, and traffic. She said paving the land would also increase toxic runoff. 

Now that the board had invalidated the ordinance, the county must decide whether or not to file an appeal. Glover said the county has much higher priorities to deal with at the moment, such as social unrest and a serious pandemic. 

“Even if the county somehow manages to come into compliance with SEPA, which would be very expensive to do, we still have a whole case around other issues related to violation of the Growth Management Act,” she said. “We are strongly encouraging the county not to continue to spend and waste taxpayer dollars on any ordinance that has been soundly rejected by all the citizens and the growth board.” 

Robin Crowder, co-director at 21 Acres, said she is pleased with the GMHB’s decision to invalidate the ordinance. She thanked the board for acknowledging and addressing the concerns of so many residents.

“The board’s decision has challenged our community to better understand agricultural practices and reminded us all of why this farmland was originally protected,” Crowder said. “We find ourselves at the hub of a long-burgeoning farm movement. Generations of farmers, young and old, have toiled on the land together to create this robust, albeit small, farming region.”

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Tagged under: King County Council