Posted by: Patricia Salkin | February 17, 2016

WA Supreme Court Finds Zoning Initiative Exceeded Scope of Local Legislative Authority

In 2013, Envision Spokane gathered enough signatures to place a local initiative on the ballot that would establish a “Community Bill of Rights” (the “Envision Initiative”). This Bill of Rights contained four primary provisions relating to zoning changes, water rights, workplace rights, and the rights of corporations. Specifically it would: require any proposed zoning changes involving large developments to be approved by voters in the neighborhood; give the Spokane River the legal right to “exist and flourish,” including the right to sustainable recharge, sufficient flows to support native fish and clean water, and give Spokane residents the right to access and use water in the city, as well as the right to enforce the Spokane River’s new rights; attempt to give employees the protections of the Bill of Rights against their employer in the workplace; and strip the legal rights of any corporation that violated the rights secured in the charter. The trial judge ruled that petitioners had standing to challenge the initiative, and the initiative exceeded the scope of the local initiative power.

The court first noted that the right to file a local initiative was not granted in the Washington state constitution. Two of the petitioners actively used the Spokane River: Spokane County (which maintains a sewage treatment plant on the river) and Avista Corporation (a utility company that stores water in Lake Coeur d’Alene that might otherwise flow into the Spokane River). The court found that these would arguably put the petitioners within the zone of interests regulated by the initiative. The petititioners also showed that the initiative would assign water rights that conflicted with water rights held pursuant to state law and create a new zoning approval process. This showing satisfied the potential injury-in-fact standing requirement.

As to the issue of whether the initiative exceeded local legislative authority, the court found that because the first provision dealt with administrative matters it was therefore outside the scope of the initiative power. The second provision was outside of the scope of the local initiative power because it conflicted with state law, which already determined the water rights for the Spokane River. Likewise, expanding the Bill of Rights to apply to private persons and entities, not just state actors, is a federal constitutional issue that was outside the scope of local authority. Lastly, the court found the fourth provision exceeded authority because municipalities cannot strip constitutional rights from entities and cannot undo decisions of the United States Supreme Court. The trial court’s holding was therefore affirmed.

Spokane Entrepreneurial Center v. Spokane Moves to Amend, 2016 WL 455957 (WA 2/4/2016)

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