Some background on Hirst
Nothing has highlighted the urban-rural divide in Washington recently quite like the issue known as Hirst. What sounds like a boring battle of bureaucratese has actually upended the lives of so many in rural areas and threatens to hold back our state’s economy (outside the tech bubble, which has had its own rude surprises of late).
It all started with a state Supreme Court ruling last year that overturned decades of water law and common practice. Previously, the state Department of Ecology certified water availability for new wells. The court said this was illegal; under the Growth Management Act, counties have to do that.
So what does that mean? It means counties have effectively ceased issuing new permits to build in rural areas. The decision stalled economic development and left families in the lurch. A new BIAW report estimates that Washington will lose $6.9 billion in economic activity annually if these new rules stay in place.
While Eastern Washington is feeling Hirst acutely, this isn’t merely an East-West divide. Rural areas in Western Washington are suffering too (the case actually originated out of Whatcom County).
Gov. Inslee may talk of “One Washington,” but when it comes to solving Hirst, he’s remarkably blasé. The rumor in Olympia is that House Democrats decided not to pass a Hirst fix because tribes and environmental groups won’t let them.
For urban lawmakers, the response to Hirst is overwhelming complacency. They just don’t care. So we asked for your stories about how Hirst is affecting you. Here’s what you had to say.
You shared your stories
We were overwhelmed by the outpouring of stories, simply too many to share. One couple with 20 acres in Western Washington said Hirst is putting them under tough financial pressure, unable to sell their property. “It has been in limbo, as no water, no houses built, and no sale. It has been a very long ordeal. We need to sell as we need the money.”
That was a common theme, people under pressure who cannot get adequate money for their property. The same couple’s daughter in Eastern Washington is in a similar situation, and Hirst is adding to the woes of even people trying to buy within city limits. “Now the price on existing homes have gone up a lot, and are priced out due to smaller available housing.”
Plummeting values are a problem for many:
“I own and have owned 50 acres in Ellensburg. I cannot put a well on it and this year the value of my property dropped nearly $50,000. This was going to be our retirement home but now we are unsure what to do with it. We are not the only ones affected by this decision that the Democrats are afraid to address.”
Many reported that they live in temporary arrangements, their dreams put on hold because property they bought in good faith is now unusable. One man wrote:
“I am a 28 year retired combat veteran and have served in the Marine Corps and Army. I finally bought my dream property, 10 acres with an existing well, and cannot get a building permit due to the Hirst Decision. Most of my belongings are in storage and I am renting a small apartment until this issue gets decided.”
Larger acreage with intended farming purposes won’t get you around Hirst. One couple with 60 acres “and only one person close to it” in Eastern Washington want to build a small farm but “we need a well without the extra costs.”
Looking for a solution
A couple with 20 acres in Whatcom County noted that Hirst’s effects go beyond rural homeowners:
“This loss of property value will have a negative effect on our local rural school district as there are many parcels of undeveloped land. This will also shift the property tax burden to homeowners and I don’t think they realize the negative consequences for them. Many people think the Hirst decisions is only for new wells. Not true. We have repeatedly called and written the legislature to no avail.”
That desire for a permanent political solution was echoed throughout many of your responses, and it’s left a bitter taste for some. “With the Legislature and Governor being unwilling to address the issue we know where we are in the pecking order,” a pair of retirees wrote in.
One man noted that the decision is about so much more than just water access:
“After spending nearly 50 years in Seattle, I purchased land in Eastern Washington to develop as a homestead for retirement, emergency preparedness and a slower, more conservative lifestyle than what the cities have become. I do not complain about the way others choose to live provided they also accept my choice to honor God and the heritage that is America. That is the same America that I served in the military to honor and keep.
“We are now faced with unbelievable water rights costs, restrictions, limitation, red tape, and bureaucracy.
“We have marijuana plantations within a few hundred yards of our property yet we are struggling to get through the necessary hoops to build a simple retirement homestead.”