The clash between farm preservation advocates and King County has reached its peak ahead of a hearing decision that will determine the fate of the extensively debated Adult Beverage Ordinance. 

In the most recent installment of the legal battle, the Washington state Growth Management Hearings Board (GMHB) heard final arguments from the county and two environmental protection organizations during an oral hearing Nov. 17. 

Friends of Sammamish Valley (FoSV) and Futurwise both argue that the current beverage ordinance violates the Washington state Growth Management Act (GMA) and State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA).

“We were very pleased with the hearing,” said Serena Glover, executive director of FoSV. “We felt like the attorneys clearly laid out the case.”

In 2018, FoSV was formed to protect Sammamish Valley farmland and protest the ordinance. Futurewise is a statewide organization focused on the preservation of farmlands, forests and water resources through land-use policies.

Glover said the organizations focused their arguments on whether the county released probable environmental impacts regarding the ordinance, which is required under SEPA.

“They're violating the zoning laws that protect our rural neighborhoods and our resource lands that are for the benefit of everybody,” she said.

She said one potential environmental impact relates to the method of sewage disposal for commercial businesses such as wine bars, taverns and event centers. The businesses currently operating in the valley use septic systems designed for residential homes, she said, which pump excess liquid waste into drain fields. The effluent water becomes waterlogged and flows downhill into creeks and farmland, she added.

Glover said this is detrimental to the farmland. Failed septic systems pose a greater risk for both farmers and the health of the Sammamish River, she said. 

“If you have excess toxins, effluent and water runoff, it all ends up in the farmland,” Glover said. “It’s a big issue when you have overflowing septic systems.”

During the hearing, FoSV attorneys used an example of a failed septic system that was found at Matthews Winery, 16116 140th PL NE, Woodinville. After the system had failed, Glover said, the King County Health Department required the wine bar to replace the system and drain field with a holding tank in order to contain the waste. 

The county also asked Matthews Winery to sign a No Protest Agreement, she said. This means the business must hook up to a commercial sewer system if it ever becomes available, she added. 

Glover argues that this decision proves the county views Matthews Winery as an “urban use business” requiring sewer hookup. The wine bar is located in unincorporated King County and zoned as rural area, she said, which contradicts the King County Comprehensive Plan.

According to FoSV, the GMA was created to disallow the extension of urban services in rural areas and resource lands. Some urban services include sidewalks, parking lots and sewer hookups.

“Many of the residents around here, many of the environmentalists, and especially the farmers, are really worried about sewage leaching into the ground, into the rivers and into the soils,” Glover said. “It’s a huge problem.”

Matthews Winery opened an adult beverage establishment that does not produce wine on-site, which FoSV contends is illegal. Other businesses not following code include Good Brewing, Castillo de Feliciana, Cougar Crest, Cave B, Chateau Lill and several others.

“I think people get confused about how many properties we are really talking about. It’s somewhere between six and nine,” said King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert, referring to the number of businesses operating illegally.

When speaking with property owners in the valley, Lambert said, many people voiced concerns about uses of the land. She said several of the properties are located next to bustling hotels and other tourist attractions, which is not desirable for potential homebuyers.

“[The land] is probably not going to be a home and if it can't be a business, then what will it be? And who would want to live there?” Lambert said.

Glover added that during the hearing, one GMHB member described an argument made by the county as “tortured.” Another panelist said the county’s argument, which equated drinking alcohol to a farming experience, is like saying “eating a hamburger is a farming experience.”

Background:

Discussions around the Adult Beverage Ordinance sparked when King County Executive Dow Constantine submitted a version of the ordinance to the King County Council for approval in April 2018, according to the FoSV.

After several attempts to revise the ordinance, the council passed the measure in a 5-4 vote in December 2019. Lambert said the new ordinance would have added clarity to the previous code by specifying the number of parking spots allowed, hours of operation and other enforceable provisions. 

FoSV and Futurewise both filed petitions to challenge the Adult Beverage Ordinance through the GMHB in March 2020. 

One month later, the county submitted a motion to “throw out” the FoSV request to change ordinance language. The organization wanted to ensure the code would be enforced under the county’s discretion and timeline, according to the FoSV website.

On the same day, the organizations filed a motion requesting the GMHB to conduct an environmental impact study. Glover said the county completed a SEPA checklist by answering “does not apply” for about 80 questions. 

She said the board is a quasi-judicial body made of three members. The board hears land-use cases related to the state GMA, she added.

The GMHB unanimously invalidated the ordinance in May 2020. According to FoSV, the board’s order cited more than a dozen reasons for invalidation.

In June 2020, the King County Council announced a six-month moratorium preventing licensing and permitting for new and existing wineries, breweries, distilleries and remote tasting rooms. The moratorium was further extended for unincorporated King County in June 2021. It will remain in effect until Dec. 23, 2022.

After the county appealed the invalidation, the case moved to King County Superior Court. Judge David Steiner released four decisions about the ordinance in April 2021. One decision reversed the GMHB invalidation because the board is required to hold a full hearing before ruling on SEPA compliance. 

“All of this hullabaloo has been made over the potential of six to nine properties,” Lambert said. “…In my opinion there are many people across the county and beyond who enjoy the tasting room experience and would be very surprised and disappointed if these businesses they enjoy were curtailed or limited more. The general public needs to be watching and having their voices heard too.”

According to the order, Judge Steiner also ruled that the board has jurisdiction for code enforcement language and decisions regarding Demonstration Project Overlay A, which permits remote tasting rooms in rural Sammamish Valley.

“It's really vital for us to preserve these farmlands because soils are not a commodity,” Glover said. “This kind of soil doesn't exist everywhere. It only exists in certain places.”

The board will release its final decision on the ordinance Jan. 3. 

 “The county will determine next steps in the litigation process after the board’s decision is issued,” Lambert said.

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