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JZ Knight wins battle over land use and water

Posted by Levine Communications Office on February 6, 2012

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Despite our apparently bountiful supply, water scarcity is a growing problem throughout Washington state.

In December, the Washington Supreme Court issued a decision in the matter of JZ Knight v. City of Yelm, finding that Knight had the legal right to challenge Yelm’s approval of residential subdivisions without first obtaining adequate water supply. The Center for Environmental Law & Policy (CELP) filed a “friend of the court” brief supporting Knight by arguing that ownership of water rights in a watershed can serve as a basis for challenging land use decisions.

“Water is a key component of land use and if a city doesn’t have sufficient water rights to supply prospective hook-ups, then it has no business approving developments,” said Rachael Paschal Osborn, staff attorney for CELP.

In 2007, Yelm approved preliminary plats for five subdivision developments, even though the city’s water system plan indicated it was severely short of water supply to serve existing and new hook-ups. JZ Knight, who owns both property and water rights in the vicinity of the developments, challenged the plat decision based on failure to comply with state growth management laws, which require that local land use authorities find an adequate water supply to serve a subdivision prior to plat approval.

The Yelm City Council rejected Knight’s claim both on substance and finding that Knight lacked legal standing to bring the claims because she was not injured. After a circuitous appeals process, the Washington Supreme Court affirmed that Knight was correct to challenge Yelm’s lack of water supply and had legal standing to do so, noting “she has water rights within the same aquifer as Tahoma Terra’s proposed sources of water for the new development.”

Concern over water rights continues in Yelm. The City of Yelm recently obtained approval of new water rights from the Washington Department of Ecology. A group of landowners in Yelm, the Thompson Creek Downstreamers, have appealed Ecology’s decision out of concern that additional pumping by Yelm will harm their own water rights and instream flows.

The Court’s decision in the JZ Knight case complements an August 2011 water and land use decision involving Kittitas County. In that case, the Court held that the Growth Management Act requires the county to protect the quality and quantity of groundwater supplies when making land use decisions.

“Water scarcity is an increasing problem throughout Washington state,” said Osborn. “Improved legal linkages between water availability and land use decisions will protect public values in our rivers and aquifers.”

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