Unincorporated south county needs a better plan

While negative news about jobs and the struggling economy can be discouraging, it’s good to see that growth, hopefully “smart growth,” is continuing in Snohomish County. Residential neighborhoods are growing and retail centers are opening, and streets and highways are being widened to accommodate the increasing traffic.

New development doesn’t happen accidentally. It’s guided by a complex network of goals, policies, long-range plans and development codes of Snohomish County and each of its cities.

The best development happens when the county and its cities are working together with coordinated plans. If the direction of growth is a concern to us, we can get involved and play a part in adjusting those plans.

Snohomish County will soon begin a major update of its Comprehensive Plan. That process will include early and continuous public involvement. That means that we, as citizens of the county, will have opportunities to comment and contribute our thoughts and ideas for improving our community’s future.

The Growth Management Act (GMA) of 1990 required Snohomish County to work with each of its cities to establish urban growth areas (UGA), within which urban development could occur and the cities could grow.

The southwest corner of the county already had a large concentration of urban development in its unincorporated areas, as well as in the cities of Everett, Mukilteo, Edmonds, Lynnwood, Woodway, Mountlake Terrace, Brier, Bothell and Mill Creek. Based on that existing development pattern, a single large UGA was established to contain all nine cities and all unincorporated lands between those cities. This area is now referred to as the Southwest Urban Growth Area, or SWUGA.

Since cities are the most appropriate units of government to provide urban services, these nine cities are expected to eventually annex the unincorporated areas. This should reduce current service conflicts between cities and competing special districts and relieve the county from the management of those areas.

The SWUGA program didn’t give its cities much authority or influence outside their corporate limits, so the county and special districts continue to govern and provide urban services within those areas.

It was soon apparent that this unincorporated area, with its 150,000 residents, had unique characteristics that needed to be better defined and linked to the existing cities. The nine cities worked together to divide the large growth area into smaller “municipal urban growth areas” (MUGA) that could be assigned to each city.

Unfortunately, the MUGA concept also had problems with boundary disputes and the exclusion of some areas. A lack of statutory authority prevented the cities from applying their plans and regulations in unincorporated areas and, in turn, Snohomish County found it overly cumbersome to adopt and administer the regulations of nine different cities.

Now, 10 years later, the cities are still doing very little planning within their assigned territories, with the exception of a few pre-annexation plans. They still have no authority to plan and regulate new development beyond their corporate limits, and annexation has become increasingly difficult as urbanization intensifies. Instead of good, coordinated planning and orderly development within the SWUGA, we’re seeing more of our tax dollars spent on legal battles over boundary conflicts and on the politics of annexation.

Snohomish County and all of its cities have comprehensive plans, but it’s hard to tell how those plans will be coordinated. The thousands of people who live in the unincorporated areas between the SWUGA cities are far from the county seat in Everett. They effectively have no “local” governance, weak political representation and very little influence on decisions that affect them. This can change. County government can and should be brought to the neighborhood level, especially within the SWUGA.

Access to information and decision-makers gives citizens the ability to influence decisions affecting their neighborhoods. We can consider a variety of possibilities to improve such access through the plan update process. Any urban area of 150,000 residents is a significant force that deserves serious attention. It might also deserve its own local council, advisory board or neighborhood representative of some kind. After all, this is the largest urban “non-city” in Snohomish County.

Until annexation occurs, the area might be better defined as several subareas of cities and their growth areas so that residents could experience a greater sense of community, could relate more easily to their adjacent cities and be more likely to participate in local matters.

With a few exceptions, the SWUGA cities have not been seriously involved in land use planning beyond their boundaries and very little annexation has taken place over the past 20 years. During the same period, unincorporated urban areas continued to grow under generous county development regulations and standards that are sometimes contrary to those of adjacent cities.

Coordination of development standards has been discussed for years, but it’s complex and difficult to achieve. Along with growth came improved roads, water and sewer extensions and better public services. Some special-purpose districts that might have been replaced by city services following annexation have, instead, managed to survive and grow to provide levels of service that exceed those of adjacent cities. This has created an upside-down situation in which the level of service in an unincorporated area exceeds that offered by the adjacent city, resulting in heated annexation battles and failed annexations.

Some special districts have grown strong enough to successfully oppose annexations and maintain their territories, their revenue streams and their very existence. It’s apparent that, if the cities can’t compete with special districts in providing adequate levels of public services, they’ll have to work with the county and special districts to find other ways to provide those services, perhaps through a regional authority with a level taxing process that is fair to all customers.

Intergovernmental coordination is not just a good idea, it’s a state requirement for comprehensive planning. It brings parties together to identify concerns, discuss issues, resolve problems, and cooperate in the management of growth. Coordination topics include transportation, water quality management of our surface waters, water and sewer services, housing opportunities, public safety and others. Dealing with these issues early can reduce the amount of unplanned or poorly regulated growth that could otherwise threaten our natural environment, economic health and quality of life.

The focus of this article is on the SWUGA because of its size, complexity, coordination deficiencies and economic impact. It’s estimated that this area contributes at least $60 million or more in general fund revenue, or about a third of the county’s total.

Urban development built to county codes and standards is filling the unincorporated areas of the SWUGA while the cities stand by and watch, unable to apply their own standards and unable to annex. It’s a serious dilemma. If the trend continues, this large unincorporated “city” will continue to grow under the county’s jurisdiction and will need to be treated like a city.

The first step is a stand-alone subarea plan for the SWUGA area that is coordinated with the plans of each of its nine cities and that provides a seamless, mapped vision of the future. Considerable data is already available from recent annexation studies done by Everett, Mukilteo, Lynnwood and Bothell.

The Comprehensive Plan update process is a good time to explore opportunities to bring a more effective level of local governance to the unincorporated areas of the SWUGA. It’s a chance to replace the current pattern of urban sprawl with an identifiable system of neighborhoods, personally served by some form of council, advisory commission or other community structure appropriate for a city of its size.

Instead of three County Council members representing them in Everett, these residents need a local body that can review issues, conduct public meetings, hear their concerns and make recommendations for action. The size, shape and population of the unincorporated SWUGA might warrant a further division into two or three sub-regions, with each group working closely with its associated cities.

The 10-year update of the Snohomish County Comprehensive Plan is scheduled to be completed in 2015, but we should expect work to begin much sooner. We can look forward to public workshops, informational presentations and eventually public hearings. Today is not too soon to start thinking about how we can effectively address identified problems and opportunities through this countywide update process.

About the authors

Ron W. Hough is a retired urban planner who worked for municipalities in California, Oregon and Washington, including nine years as planning manager for the city of Lynnwood.

Gene J. Grieve is a retired civil engineer who worked for the city of Seattle, Snohomish County, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and in the private sector. Both live in unincorporated southwest Snohomish County.

People interested in joining a SWUGA citizens group can contact Grieve at gjgrieve@gmail.com.

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