An Essay on the current state of Political Process in Jefferson County, Washington

There is growing evidence that "We the People" are awakening from over 150 years of deep comatose sleep. Since the days before the Civil War "We the People" (which is literally the engine of democracy) has been dominated by the "locomotive of State", a series of interconnected political machines, dominated by Corporate interests of varying levels of sophistication.

"We the People" is still breathing, even in the midst of the nation's continuing media and drug-induced slumber. Out here on the frontier, in the wilds of East Jefferson County, there appear to be the glimmer of consciousness. At the county-government level there is even evidence that "We the People" seems to be stirring from its deep sleep.

Of course, there is danger in this. After such a long sleep "we the people" has no idea where it is heading or even where it has been. All it can see is the rapid motion, a frightening blur of high-contrast black and white images. With tingling fingers, and hands clumsy with atrophy, it grabs awkwardly for the controls. "Where's the brake, for god's sake?" it cries. "Get out of the way, you crooks! Gimmee the steering wheel... can't you see that we're headed for the point-of-no-return!"

Our County's namesake, Thomas Jefferson, who was the Dr. Frankenstein of "we the people", imagined a nation of well-educated, politically astute "Citizen-farmers" on 160 acre tracts, running their farms as they ran their governments: in a responsible, stewardly manner. It is very difficult to integrate the funky, decomposing, un-dead corpse of Jefferson's monster with the slick, polished machinery that has stood in its place for so long. There are bound to be fundamental and explosive conflicts because there are traditions, and because there are expectations of the people who have been running the show for the past 150 years that they have the right to buy and sell the land and the resources of the land and of course, the politicians.

How can this tradition, the expectation to profit on one's dealings, be integrated into the expectations of "we the people" who are suddenly claiming the right to arbitrarily impose endless, contradictory laws hoping to regulate and ultimately, to discourage many of those traditional transactions? Even more important, where does the re-awakened corpse Jefferson's monster get the rights it is suddenly trying to assert?

Philosophers speak of ethics as the tempering of priviledge with responsibility. It can be argued that it is the responsibility of the would-be regulator to thoroughly understand the implications and impacts of a proposed regulation, in order to avoid unintended harm.

The regulatory structure we are building is a loose fabric of laws. The original legal structure in our society was called the Mosaic Code, a simple, self-administered system composed of only ten laws. Throughout history, it was amended over and over again, not because it was inadequate to outlaw evildoing, but because it was too complete: it did not offer the would-be evildoers (the class of people to which most western religions maintain we all belong) nearly enough loopholes.

Society responded by making more laws, I believe it can fairly be stated, in order to create more loopholes. As the fabric of law becomes ever finer, its glaring holes filled with tighter and tighter regulations, the total number of loopholes increases spectacularly. It just gets harder and harder to find them. It has already reached the point where you need an expert just to fill out the forms for you, and this is a very mixed blessing. It has created a regulatory environment that clearly favors the big players, the large Corporate organizations wielding power and money, the organizations with legal departments and engineers on the payroll. Organizations whose executive officers already know how to use the system to get their way.

To maintain that the Corporate players are actually driving the regulatory process is to risk being called a nut, but the "ethical" conflict between the apparent intent and the actual effect of carelessly crafted regulations is clear: the big guys, with their full-time legal and engineering staff have only to focus their powerful "microscopes" on the regulations to find a multitude of loopholes and then employ some high-tech lubricants to grease their way thru them.

The proverbial "little guy" doesn't stand a chance in this kind of regulated system, lacking the time and the tools to find the loopholes, and the money to come up with the lubricants necessary to squeeze thru them. This analysis is especially pertinent to Forest Resource Lands, most of which are now held by a very small number of large, well-financed companies intent on converting them into real-estate subdivisions as soon as a market for them exists, and paying under a dollar-an-acre-per-year in taxes while they wait.

So where does this leave us?

We started this round of the regulatory process claiming that we were empowered by the state, under 2929, to draft ordinances that could "protect" certain kinds of property from "inappropriate development", namely subdivision. The justification for this protection is the shameless and ever accellerating erosion of the traditional rural land-use pattern perpetrated by the development community.

There can be little arguement that the explosive growth in our area has been driven in large measure by the ultimate failure of the existing urban and suburban population centers to provide a liveable environment. And yet it is exactly the same pattern of urban sprawl that people are fleeing, that is now being superimposed on the rural landscape of East Jefferson County. It is this pattern of unsustainable, unlivable development that it is our duty as citizens of this community to resist, whether we are Developers, Farmers, Loggers, professional Tree-huggers or Bureaucrats. The problem is how to do more than simply getting chewed up fighting with one another in our short-sighted efforts to resist it.

The underlying purpose of the proposed protection is twofold: first, to prevent the people of the existing community from losing their way of life, or ultimately, from being forced off their land by economic pressures and conflicting "quality-of-life" expectations brought by the influx of outsiders; and second, to prevent shabby development of unsuitable, geologically hazardous or frequently flooded areas that will inevitably cost the community dearly when the community is taxed to clean up the mess these houses and developments make when the run-off and sewage they create floods wetlands, washes down onto the roads or houses below them, or when they fall off cliffs onto beaches or highways or float down rivers.

The down-side of all of this regulation is that many of the people these regulations are supposed to protect suspect that it is already too late, that the battle was won by the developers 10 or 15 years ago, before the regulators even began to discuss the ways that the 5-acre subdivision loophole in the original comprehensive plan might be leading to major problems in the future. These people see that anti-development regulations, at this point in the process, simply impinge on their ability to "cash-out" and escape from an already ravaged, unliveable landscape.

In their view, as a result of outside market conditions and pressure from suburban encroachment, small-scale industrial forestry and productively farming the land are both rapidly becoming economically unfeasible. The suburban residents want to see the farm, but they do not want to smell it. They want to drive past the plantations of trees, but they do not want to see them harvested. In effect, the owners of these "resource lands" are providing without compensation, the aesthetic open-space that attracts people from outside to move the area, and the attractiveness of the environment their operations provide is their undoing.

It has been proposed that they ought be able to sell the development rights to their land, formally putting it into some sort of "open-space" designation in perpetuity. At least this way they would be compensated financially for the aesthetic service they are providing, but the County and NGO's like the Land Trust have very limited economic means, and the development community can always outbid them. Worse yet, selling the "development rights" to the County or the Land-trust ultimately accellerates the process by creating an economic environment of artificial scarcity, driving up the value of any buildable land that retains its development rights. In a booming real-estate market, whoever sells out first, looses biggest.

So, where is the common ground on which a politically acceptable solution can stand? I do not know. So far, the would-be regulators have dramatically failed to communicate their intentions to most of the people of the community. The outcome of the first round of the public process leaves this observer feeling like almost nobody who really needs protection wants to be regulated, and the developers, whose interests appear most in need of education and regulation, simply stayed away.

Joe Breskin

July 4th 1990

(360) 385-3771

Personal Website