A group of rural landowners hauling a pile of cardboard boxes squeezed into elevators at the King County Courthouse yesterday to deliver about 51,000 signatures for referendums...

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A group of rural landowners hauling a pile of cardboard boxes squeezed into elevators at the King County Courthouse yesterday to deliver about 51,000 signatures for referendums that would overturn the county’s new critical-areas ordinances.

The controversial ordinances, known as the CAO, limit how rural land can be developed. The Metropolitan King County Council approved the laws in October, but the three ordinances have met with heavy opposition from rural residents from the beginning.

With the CAO set to take effect Saturday, three groups already have started formal campaigns to overturn it. The Citizens’ Alliance for Property Rights, which represents rural residents, is hoping to get its referendums on the March ballot. The landowners’ alliance has more momentum than the two other groups opposing the CAO.

The Pacific Legal Foundation, a national property-rights group, also is planning a lawsuit in King County Superior Court against the CAO. Sam Rodabough, an attorney for the group, said he could not comment on the status of its work.

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Earlier this month, the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors challenged the CAO before the Central Puget Sound Growth Management Hearings Board. The Realtors said the CAO and the county’s recent update of its Comprehensive Plan violated state law requiring sufficient buildable land and affordable housing.

The hearings board plans a prehearing conference on the challenge Tuesday, said board member Bruce Laing. Other complaints against the CAO could be filed legally before the board by Jan. 11, he said.

King County and two environmental groups have sued to prevent the proposed referendums from going on the ballot.

By turning in their signatures yesterday, the rural landowners took a big step in their fight against the new laws. They used about 300 volunteers over five weeks to gather signatures from unincorporated residents from Enumclaw to Woodinville.

They gathered more than 17,000 signatures for each of the three referendums needed to overturn the ordinances. They estimate they have about 13,000 valid signatures for each referendum, which is nearly twice the 6,900 needed to get on the ballot.

“For many of us, this is the best Christmas present we could ever have,” Jim Osborne, co-director of the Citizens’ Alliance for Property Rights, said as the signatures were turned in.

The fate of the referendums, though, is far from certain. King County, along with environmental groups 1000 Friends of Washington and the Center for Environmental Law and Policy, filed a lawsuit last month arguing that the CAO was required by the state Growth Management Act. Changes mandated under state growth law can’t be overturned by local referendums, the lawsuit contends.

The county has asked a King County Superior Court judge to make a ruling in the case at a hearing scheduled for Jan. 11.

“We respect people’s right to collect signatures for referendums like that, but we believe state law prohibits the use of petitions and referendums to repeal land-use regulation,” said Carolyn Duncan, a spokeswoman for County Executive Ron Sims.

The new laws will require owners of rural land to leave 50 to 65 percent of their property in native vegetation when they develop and will mandate wider buffers around creeks and some wetlands.

For rural residents, the signature campaign is the start of something bigger, regardless of whether they prevail in court. Rural and farming groups will meet next month to discuss statewide measures that could benefit rural landowners. They are inspired by a ballot measure passed last month in Oregon that requires governments to compensate landowners for lost property value brought about by new land-use rules.

“This is only the beginning,” said Ron Ewart of Fall City.

Ashley Bach: 206-464-2567 or abach@seattletimes.com