King County takes hard line on urban sprawl
As you head east to Snoqualmie Pass on Interstate 90, there are lush green forests on either side of the freeway.
That land has been protected from development. But sometimes, communities believe they need development to thrive.
The question on when to grow – and when to restrict growth – can lead to some hard decisions.
If you fly into Seattle at night, you can look down and see areas of light and dark. There are exceptions, but for the most part, there’s a pretty clear separation between what’s urban and what’s rural.
“That just doesn’t happen. That involves government making hard choices,” said King County Council Member Rod Dembowski. In his office in the King County Courthouse, he showed me a map in the latest edition of the county’s comprehensive plan (formally adopted just last week).
There’s a red polygon on that map that marks the line between urban and rural.
In the city of Snoqualmie, the city wanted to move the line a little, to make space for hotels, shopping and affordable housing right next to I-90. “This is the urban growth line. This side is urban, and this side is rural," said Dembowski, gesturing with his pen. "So the pressure was to make this urban.”
Dembowski said Snoqualmie residents made a good argument, but their request was rejected. “We held the line here," said Dembowski, "and that’s been very controversial.”
I wanted to see the line for myself, so I drove up to Snoqualmie and met Mayor Matt Larson. We walked part of the urban growth boundary together as fresh snow fell around us.
“A lot of interest groups and others that would say, 'Oh, don’t develop something like this,' haven’t ever come out to actually look at what the condition of the site is," said Larson. "I mean, standing here, if you stand still, it’s pretty loud from the ambient noise of the freeway in the background. It’s mostly blackberries and alders. Most of the site’s been logged. It was used as an RV park for years. So it’s not exactly pristine wilderness.”
Larson is really frustrated with that urban growth boundary.
He's all for preserving areas with high conservation value. He said there are little forest streams and pretty areas that are worth protecting that are inside the growth boundary. "That area’s not appropriate for urban growth. Let’s take that out of the urban growth area," he said.
"And here’s another area that makes a lot more sense to put into the urban growth area," he said, pointing to the parcel between Snoqualmie and I-90.
Larson said that would still offer someone like Dembowski a chance to claim victory. "You get a net zero, you’ve held the line, but you’ve adjusted the line to achieve the same goal, but done it in a much smarter and effective way.”
The mayor said tasteful hotels on this parcel near Interstate 90 would help stimulate the tourist economy in Snoqualmie and bring in sales tax revenue. That would help the city diversify its income sources and escape some of the constraints associated with property taxes (which generally may only rise 1% a year). And if they could build some affordable housing, maybe workers at the Salish Lodge wouldn’t have to drive from places like South King County to get to work.
Larson said the urban growth boundary puts that dream out of reach.
“It makes me feel like we’re caught in a situation where ideology is driving land use decisions instead of good common sense," Larson said. “I mean, this is something that was drawn on a napkin 20, 30 years ago. It just makes sense that we revisit some of it and look at it in more granular detail.”
Dembowski acknowledged Larson's compelling argument, but he said if you let the growth boundary move in one place, it would start to fall apart everywhere.
“You look at other counties. If you go for example to Snohomish County, they haven’t been as rigid as we have been with our line. But I think this region as a whole appreciates what we’ve done,” Dembowski said.
That can lead to hard feelings in places like Snoqualmie. “That’s gonna be a little bit of a festering sore,” admitted Dembowski.
And it’s not just Snoqualmie. The urban growth boundary held in every place where it was challenged during this year’s rewrite of the county comprehensive plan.
The next chance to revisit the boundary will be in 2020.