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County planning staff won't be rebuilt

Even when building rebounds, fewer county permits will be needed

  • Joel Zach works on a house at Cavalero Heights, a new development off 79th Avenue SE in an area that Lake Stevens hopes to annex. Snohomish County off...

    Michael O'Leary / The Herald

    Joel Zach works on a house at Cavalero Heights, a new development off 79th Avenue SE in an area that Lake Stevens hopes to annex. Snohomish County officials are worried about losing building revenue as cities prepare to annex thousands of acres.

  • Workers build houses at Cavalero Heights, a new development off 79th Ave. SE in an area that Lake Stevens hopes to annex. Snohomish County officials a...

    Michael O’Leary / The Herald

    Workers build houses at Cavalero Heights, a new development off 79th Ave. SE in an area that Lake Stevens hopes to annex. Snohomish County officials are worried about losing building revenue from future home developments as cities prepare to annex thousands of acres in unincorporated Snohomish County.

  • Workers build houses at Cavalero Heights, a new development off 79th Ave. SE in an area that Lake Stevens hopes to annex. Snohomish County officials a...

    Michael O’Leary / The Herald

    Workers build houses at Cavalero Heights, a new development off 79th Ave. SE in an area that Lake Stevens hopes to annex. Snohomish County officials are worried about losing building revenue from future home developments as cities prepare to annex thousands of acres in unincorporated Snohomish County.

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By Noah Haglund, Herald Writer
@NWHaglund
Published:
  • Joel Zach works on a house at Cavalero Heights, a new development off 79th Avenue SE in an area that Lake Stevens hopes to annex. Snohomish County off...

    Michael O'Leary / The Herald

    Joel Zach works on a house at Cavalero Heights, a new development off 79th Avenue SE in an area that Lake Stevens hopes to annex. Snohomish County officials are worried about losing building revenue as cities prepare to annex thousands of acres.

  • Workers build houses at Cavalero Heights, a new development off 79th Ave. SE in an area that Lake Stevens hopes to annex. Snohomish County officials a...

    Michael O’Leary / The Herald

    Workers build houses at Cavalero Heights, a new development off 79th Ave. SE in an area that Lake Stevens hopes to annex. Snohomish County officials are worried about losing building revenue from future home developments as cities prepare to annex thousands of acres in unincorporated Snohomish County.

  • Workers build houses at Cavalero Heights, a new development off 79th Ave. SE in an area that Lake Stevens hopes to annex. Snohomish County officials a...

    Michael O’Leary / The Herald

    Workers build houses at Cavalero Heights, a new development off 79th Ave. SE in an area that Lake Stevens hopes to annex. Snohomish County officials are worried about losing building revenue from future home developments as cities prepare to annex thousands of acres in unincorporated Snohomish County.

EVERETT — The downsizing at Snohomish County's planning department could become permanent, even if the local economy recovers.
As cities such as Lynnwood, Marysville and Lake Stevens prepare to annex large chunks of land in the coming years, the county is worried about losing millions of dollars it collects in fees and taxes. A housing downturn already has forced the largely permit-funded planning department to cut staff by more than half.
“Permit volumes have never been as high as they were during the recent building boom, and likely won't be again in Snohomish County,” county spokesman Christopher Schwarzen said.
The building slowdown caused the short-term drop, he said, while city annexations in urban areas are likely to keep permit volumes low over the long term. Other parts of county government, notably the sheriff's office, also are likely to shrink as annexations continue.
Two years ago, with the housing market at its peak, the county planning department had 261 workers. After layoffs this past winter and spring, it shrunk to 97, bringing staffing to early-1990s levels.
That happened as permits for unincorporated parts of the county fell from 3,034 in 2007 to 1,544 in 2008. Revenues followed a similar downward arc, dipping from a high of $21.1 million in 2007 to $13.1 million in 2008. This year is on pace to come in even lower.
To manage its workload with reduced staff, the planning department this spring cut back office hours to the public, closing daily at 3 p.m., during lunchtime, and all day on Thursdays. The closures don't mean employees get to skip out on work; they use the time to return phone calls and work through applications.
Annexations are likely to make things worse.
By 2011, Bothell, Lake Stevens, Lynnwood, Marysville and Mukilteo could take over large parts of unincorporated Snohomish County with 90,000 people and thousands of acres.
“We're going to continue to have budget difficulties as annexations take place,” County Councilman Dave Gossett said.
A lawsuit by Mill Creek over Lynnwood's annexation proposal and the denial of a citizen-driven annexation in Bothell by the state's Boundary Review Board could slow down those efforts, but might not stop them.
Under an optimistic five-year prediction, permits for unincorporated areas would never return to 2007 levels. They would rebound about two-thirds by 2014. A less rosy forecast shows permits in unincorporated areas creeping up to a mere third of 2007 levels by 2014.
That's unwelcome news for some developers.
“Typically, the county is better to deal with when it comes to permit processing,” said Mike Pattison of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties.
Annexations give cities more money, but also saddle them with new responsibilities. State growth laws encourage cities to take over urban-growth areas by 2015 by offering tax incentives. The people in those areas don't pay more because the 0.1 percent to 0.2 percent tax credit comes out of sales tax the state already collects.
Most county planning departments throughout the state are supported by fees, and most have cut back employees or hours because of the weak economy, said Scott Merriman, the Washington State Association of Counties' deputy director. No two counties are changed in the same way by annexations, he said.
Pierce County's planning staff has fallen to 123 employees from 173 because of the housing downturn, said Chuck Kleeberg, Pierce County director of Planning and Land Services. When three new cities incorporated in the mid-1990s, however, it didn't lead to reductions in planning staff. Kleeberg said that owed largely to the fact that many of the newly incorporated areas already were built out.
During more than a decade of annexations and newly formed cities in King County, no two have been alike, said Natasha Jones, deputy communications director for King County Executive Kurt Triplett. No hard-and-fast rules exist to predict how many employees could be lost or transferred.
“It's more complicated than it would seem on the surface,” she said, “especially when it's large annexations in urban areas.”

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.


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