Development rules overdue, direly needed

The appalling front page photo on Wednesday shows more than 60 homes sandwiched onto a 51/2 acre site in Mill Creek.

The development is representative of an ongoing and growing problem in Snohomish County – new, quickly built neighborhoods where a homeowners association maintains roads and other public areas instead of the government. In addition to the real issue of aesthetics, alarming problems include: Private roads that are too narrow for firefighting equipment, subdivisions that lack sidewalks and parking, and not enough space between homes. Fire officials say the neighborhoods aren’t safe for residents or firefighters.

Snohomish County is belatedly addressing the issue by drafting rules to remedy the dangers and to create standards for such developments. Changes could include things such as requiring upstairs windows in the front and back of new homes where fire ladders can reach them, and posting “no parking” signs in narrow fire lanes.

But that’s only for new construction. Residents of existing and under-construction developments need to address the problems themselves.

It’s hard to fathom that a county that is experiencing unprecedented, major growth, does not already have design and safety standards in place for any and all new construction.

Instead, it’s been full steam ahead. The county has approved 136 such developments, with hundreds of single-family homes since 2004. In 2004 and 2005, the county approved 72 projects. In 2006, 64 projects were already approved by June.

District 1 Deputy Fire Chief Steve Sherman said fire officials have been concerned about the developments for more than a year. The developments meet the county fire code, but don’t go far enough to help firefighters do their job. He said firefighters have a tough time getting through the crowded developments for inspections. Imagine them trying to make their way through late at night for an emergency.

Equally unnerving is the fact that the county has been without a full-time fire marshal for several years. Instead, Craig Ladiser, the county’s director of planning and development services, has been managing those responsibilities.

“Not having a fire marshal has probably delayed our sensitivity,” Ladiser said. “With an advocate, we probably would have understood the problem much quicker.”

It’s hard to fathom that a county experiencing extreme growth does not have a full-time fire marshal.

It’s understood that as the county grows, more higher-density, affordable housing is needed.

But “affordable” should not mean dangerously squished together like sardines in a tree-less neighborhood. High-density housing can be built that is safe and aesthetically pleasing. The county’s new rules, to be unveiled in January, are too late for many, and can’t come soon enough.

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