Snohomish County: Growing Pains -- Rural Areas Left Out In The Cold, Landowners Say
From his horse farm, tucked on a wooded hillside north of Monroe, Steve Higgins can barely see his nearest neighbor, but he has been anxiously watching Snohomish County officials as they draft a plan to guide the county's development over the next 20 years.
Because his livelihood - training and boarding horses - is tied to the thousands of horse owners in the county, Higgins wants to be sure rural lands stay open for stables, farms and trails. He's not convinced the county's plan would do that.
The size of the county's population is expected to grow by about 5 percent by 2012, and the plan, which is required by the state Growth Management Act, is meant to accommodate an estimated 220,000 new residents while reducing suburban sprawl and protecting rural areas.
The County Council was expected to approve a plan today that would draw urban-growth boundaries around cities but would allow more growth in outlying areas rather than keeping it in the county's urban southwestern corner.
Once passed, the plan would be a binding document to guide cities' growth.
County Council Chairwoman Karen Miller says the Growth Management Plan reflects thoughtful deliberation and extensive public input.
"I'm very satisfied with the process," she said. "This is a plan that everybody (on the council) can vote for and say it was a job well-done."
But Higgins and other observers think the plan sanctions urban sprawl and complain that their views have not been adequately considered.
"The council isn't interested in growth management as far as we're concerned," Higgins said. "One of the objectives of the Growth Management Act was to get rid of urban sprawl . . . and they've completely blown it."
Of particular concern are several sections of land outside urban boundaries - north and east of Monroe, north of Snohomish, south of Lake Stevens and north of the Tulalip Indian Reservation - that would be zoned for half-acre and one-acre lots under the council's plan. Higgins says that density would create a demand for urban commercial services and lead to a profusion of businesses such as gas stations and convenience stores.
The county Planning Commission had recommended zoning those areas for less density - known as downzoning - to keep the rural land in lots of at least 5 acres, but the council rejected the proposal.
Higgins thinks a plan to reduce sprawl has to be two-pronged: increasing the size and density of urban areas and then zoning rural areas so they will stay open and undeveloped. He says the council did the first part but didn't have the political will to finish the job.
"They're so used to accommodating developers, and rural land is so valuable, that they're ignoring us."
Miller said the council thought it was wrong to downzone the land without first holding public hearings to give owners a say about the future of their land.
Political observers think recent changes in the council's composition, especially the defeat two years ago of liberal members, Peter Hurley and Ross Kane, by property-rights supporters R.C. "Swede" Johnson and John Garner, dramatically affected the Growth Management Plan.
The council's plan calls for a more dispersed population, while the version recommended by the Planning Commission, known as the "regional centers" option, would have concentrated more people in the southwest urban area, notably Everett, Mukilteo and Lynnwood.
Although the state Growth Management Act encourages higher urban densities in order to reduce sprawl, the council maintains that its choice, known as the "diversified centers" option, is consistent with the state law. It would steer 20,000 new residents toward outlying communities such as Arlington, which is expected to double in population, Lake Stevens, Marysville and the Smokey Point area.
Klaus Schilde of the county Planning Department said planners would monitor growth every year to see whether the plan was on target. He said cities would reach their desired populations using zoning, density bonuses for developers and capital improvements - such as roads and sewer and water lines - to support development.
A countywide opinion survey conducted in 1993 found that residents:
-- Accepted the idea of having some growth in their neighborhoods.
-- Strongly supported development regulations that protect community character and the environment.
-- Agreed with the concept of focusing growth in existing urban areas to prevent sprawl and protect agricultural and forest lands.
Although the survey was designed to be used in the planning process, Miller said it didn't have much influence with council members.
Higgins said he thinks the council ignored the survey because its findings were at odds with developers' goals.
"The council has the media believing that everybody wants to develop their land," Higgins said. "All you have to do is look at that survey to see that's not true."
Despite the survey's findings, Planning Commissioner John Postema, who is active with the Property Rights Alliance, says sprawl is not a dirty word.
"People want their space," he said. "That's the American dream:
one or two acres and a house."
Postema suggested that pressure on urban areas could be reduced by allowing housing development anywhere, including on federal land. He said only 27 percent of land in Snohomish County is private property.
"Wouldn't it be nice . . . to have people living out here?" he asked, pointing to the national forest on a county map. "It would be like Switzerland, where people have the highest standard of living."
Postema was not on the Planning Commission when it endorsed the regional-centers option, and he said he's pleased the County Council supports diversified centers.
Ellen Gray of the Pilchuck Audubon Society's SmartGrowth campaign thinks the urban-growth boundaries in the county's plan are too large, threatening open space and wasting city and county resources.
"It's not economically efficient," Gray said. "It's not dense enough for transit; water and sewer lines have to be run farther; police and school buses have to drive farther."
Gray worries that the county would lose 8,000 acres of agricultural land and 16,000 acres of forest land under the council's version of the Growth Management Plan. And she says opportunities for public input have been inadequate.
County residents will have a chance to voice their opinions July 10, when the County Council holds hearings on several ordinances that will begin to implement the plan. The hearings will begin at 1:30 p.m. in the county administration building in Everett.
Perhaps the biggest question is how the Growth Management Plan will be affected if Initiative 164 becomes law. The property-rights law will go into effect late next month unless a signature-gathering campaign to repeal it succeeds in forcing a statewide vote on the issue. The law would require governments to reimburse property owners if regulations reduced the value of their land.
Miller said the county is working on the assumption that the measure will not be retroactive, and thus will not invalidate the Growth Management Plan.
"But if you ask six lawyers, you'll get six different opinions," she said.
Meanwhile, the county is working hard to pass the laws that enact the plan before Initiative 164 goes into effect.
Seattle Times Snohomish County bureau reporter Diane Brooks contributed to this report.
Published Correction Date: 06/29/95 - Because Of An Editing Error, This Story About Growth Management In Snohomish County Misstated The Projected Increase In The County's Population Size. The Size Of The County's Population Is Expected To Grow By Roughly 45 Percent By 2012.
Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.