State Supreme Court rejects bid to form Cedar County out of eastern King County on February 5, 1998.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 8/14/2006
  • Essay 7894
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On February 5, 1998, Washington's Supreme Court ends a six-year effort by dissatisfied rural residents to create a new Cedar County out of 1,585 square miles of eastern King County. Cedar County proponents, like supporters of proposed new counties elsewhere in Western Washington, complain that growth-management measures unduly burden rural landowners, yet are imposed by politicians from the cities without rural representation. Rejecting their lawsuit, the Supreme Court rules that Cedar County advocates have not submitted the required number of signatures. The decision essentially dooms all the new-county movements by holding that even if sufficient signatures are collected, creation of new counties is entirely up to the state Legislature, which has shown no interest in adding to the 39 counties Washington has had for over 80 years.

The last time a new county was formed in Washington was 1911, when Pend Oreille County was created out of the eastern portion of Stevens County in the northeast corner of the state. Subsequent county secession efforts failed, including attempts in the 1970s and 1980s to form Pacifica and Cascade counties out of southern and eastern King County respectively, and Olympic County out of sections of Clallam and Jefferson counties.

In the early 1990s, a new wave of secession proposals arose in the rural portions of many Western Washington counties. Proposed new counties included Liberty in eastern Pierce County, Freedom in northern Snohomish, Pioneer in eastern Whatcom, and Skykomish in southeastern Snohomish and northeastern King, as well as Cedar County. Although proponents of the different new counties had varying motivations, all expressed frustration that laws governing rural areas, especially land use regulations and restrictions, were passed by governing bodies dominated by politicians from urban areas, leaving rural residents feeling unrepresented.

Cedar County

The Cedar County movement, which began in 1992, was seen as a direct response to the County's adoption of significant growth management measures -- somewhat ironically, legislation that was prompted in large measure by demands from County voters, including many in rural areas, to stem the uncontrolled development and sprawl, which they saw as destroying their way of life. Creation of Cedar County was first proposed in June 1992, while the King County Council was considering countywide planning policies (which it adopted on July 6) that included an urban growth boundary between the urbanized western county and the rural east, where future development would be strictly limited.

Cedar County proponents, including science-fiction writer Dave Fields, firefighter Dick Peacock, and retired real-estate agent Ted Cowan, denounced policies that they said would prevent them from building on or subdividing their land, and the fact that both the committee that drafted the policies, and the County Council that adopted them, were dominated by politicians from the cities. Another motivator for secessionists was the County's 1990 Sensitive Areas Ordinance, which restricted development in or near wetlands, streams, and steep slopes.

The proposed Cedar County covered some 1,585 square miles of eastern King County, including the cities of Duvall, Carnation, North Bend, Black Diamond, and Enumclaw, along with the rural areas inbetween and the vast stretch of largely forested land reaching to the County's existing eastern border along the Cascade Crest. It had around 140,000 residents, few of whom showed much enthusiasm for the proposal. In four years, fewer than 24,000 signed petitions requesting creation of the new county.

Uncertain Procedure

Neither Cedar County advocates nor government officials were sure exactly what procedures were necessary to create a new county. The state constitution sets minimum population figures for both the new and remaining county (which the Cedar County proposal easily met) and precludes removing territory from a county "unless a majority of the voters living in such territory shall petition therefor" (Constitution). However neither the constitution nor state statutes further prescribed steps for creating a county. Various bills were introduced in the Legislature to clarify the procedure, but none passed.

When the Cedar County Committee finally submitted 23,765 petition signatures to Secretary of State Ralph Munro between February and November 1996, Committee chair Lois Gustafson asserted that, because the signatures numbered over half of the 45,033 votes cast in the last election within the proposed Cedar County boundaries, the Committee had complied with the constitutional requirement to form a new county. Gustafson requested that Munro certify the result, like an election, so that the Cedar County would be established.

Munro reported the results to the Legislature but said he had no authority to certify them and declined to do so. When the Legislature took no action on the report, the Cedar County Committee asked the state Supreme Court to order Munro to certify its petition. On February 5, 1998, the Court denied the request.

Up to the Legislature

All nine justices agreed that the Secretary of State had no duty under the constitution or statutes to certify petitions for new counties. A six-justice majority went on to make two additional rulings, which essentially doomed the Cedar County effort and other proposed new counties. First, they stated that the constitutionally required "majority of the voters living in such territory" means a majority of all registered voters in the territory, not just a majority of those who voted in the last election. Since there were 97,226 registered voters in the proposed Cedar County at the time the petitions were submitted, the 23,765 signatures fell far short of the required number.

Second, the Court ruled that whether or not to create a new county is entirely up to the discretion of the Legislature. The Court explained that the petition requirement is a limitation on the Legislature, precluding it from creating a county unless the necessary signatures are obtained, but that even if a sufficient number of signatures are presented the Legislature has no duty to act. And the Legislature had made clear it had little interest in creating new counties -- in addition to the unsuccessful attempts to pass legislation establishing procedures for forming new counties, bills authorizing creation of Pioneer, Freedom, and Skykomish counties were defeated in the 1997 session.

Within months of the ruling, the Cedar County Committee voted to disband, and other new county efforts folded. Backers of Freedom County continued to insist that their county was legally established until losing a court appeal of their own in 2003.


Cedar County Committee v. Munro, 134 Wn.2d 377, 950 P.2d 446 (1998); Washington Constitution, Article XI, section 3; Larry Lange, "Case For Separate Entity Goes To High Court Cedar County Knocks On Wood," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 21, 1997, p. A-1; Lange, "A Petition Can't Create County, Court Says Only Legislature Has That Power, Judges Rule," Ibid., February 6, 1998, p. C-1; Gordy Holt, "Plan to Split County Has Rural Roots," Ibid., November 23, 1992, p. B-1; Sam Quinones, "Cedar County Hopes Don't Die With Bill," The (Tacoma) News Tribune, March 21, 1993, p. B-3; Heath Foster, "Contention Over Counties / Secession Is Goal Of 5 Rural Groups West Of Mountains," Ibid., June 12, 1995, p. A-1; Scott North, "Court Says No to Rival County," The (Everett) Herald, October 11, 2003, p. B-1; Kery Murakami, "They're Talking Secession -- County-Growth Plan Angers Rural Residents," The Seattle Times, July 1, 1992 (; Stephen Clutter, Jerry Bergsman, "Rural Folks Want Their Own County -- Residents Confident They'll Secede," Ibid., July 17, 1992; Diane Brooks, "Hopes For New Counties Fade After Ruling," Ibid., August 4, 1998.

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