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New Restrictions from The Washington State Supreme Court

There are new rules regarding permit-exempt wells that will restrict growth in some rural communities.

On October 6th, 2016, the Washington State Supreme Court made a ruling that impacts the responsibilities of counties within the State to review permit-exempt (household) wells in connection with building permits and subdivision applications.

A permit-exempt well is, as the name suggests, a well that does not require a water permit from the Department of Ecology.

The Court’s decision will effectively preclude counties from granting building permits and subdivision applications that intend to rely on household wells that will impair a minimum, in-stream flow (a rule set to protect river and stream flows at sufficient levels for fish). Essentially, if withdrawing water from the exempt well would drop a nearby stream level below minimum flow levels set by the Department of Ecology (Ecology), you can’t withdraw water.

So how does this affect you?

At the time of writing, it remains unclear. Primarily, the decision directs the counties to go beyond the in-stream flow rules adopted by Ecology, and conduct their own analysis when determining legal availability of water for rural development.

The result of this decision in many counties will be burdensome hydrogeology report requirements – even for a basic residential building permit on a rural property. It could mean blanket denials of all building permits and subdivision applications for properties within watersheds that are already fully appropriated. This in turn could mean long delays in receiving building and development permits – if any will be granted at all.

In counties with approved watershed plans that include “reserve water” in anticipation of future growth (such as Chelan County), the impacts of this Supreme Court decision will likely be much less extreme. However, regardless of where you live in our State, the landscape is changing rapidly with respect to water availability.  And, while the topic may be dry (pun intended), the decision has important ramifications for future growth within the State.

You’re probably wondering how this came about.

The Hirst decision arose from a lawsuit filed by a group of environmentalists against Whatcom County, alleging that Whatcom County was not satisfying its obligations under the Growth Management Act (GMA) by granting building permits that intended to rely upon household wells without conducting an independent analysis of water availability. Why? Because the GMA requires counties to ensure an adequate water supply exists before granting a building permit or subdivision application.

In its decision, the Supreme Court stated that an applicant for a residential building permit must produce proof that water is both legally available—and actually available—when the applicant is relying on a permit-exempt well.

For environmentalists, the decision is a big win. The decision squarely precludes the unchecked growth of single-family residences relying on permit-exempt wells in rural areas.  As stated by the Court in the decision, “this is precisely the ‘uncoordinated and unplanned growth’ that the legislature found to ‘pose a threat to the environment, sustainable economic development, and the health, safety, and high quality of life enjoyed by residents of this state.’”

Right now, the net result is counties cannot issue building permits unless there is water actually and legally available.

To learn more about this topic and the details of the ruling, read the full article. To better understand how this Supreme Court ruling may affect your permit application, call us today at JDSA Law.