SULTAN — Jared and Sarah Ramey spent a year searching for a home to buy before landing in Sultan.
The couple, both 26, were renting an Everett apartment. They wanted to leave the city, but not go too far.
“Sultan wasn’t on our list to begin with,” said Jared Ramey, who works as a software engineer in Bellevue. “As we started getting beat out of any house we were interested in, we expanded our search.”
Last December, a home within their budget of $500,000 came on the market in the city of about 5,400, off U.S. 2 in rural Snohomish County.
They moved quickly.
The couple put in an offer of $70,000 over asking price to edge out seven other buyers. A few blocks from downtown, the home has four bedrooms and a yard. Jared Ramey said similar homes in Marysville, where the two met in high school and went to prom together, were going for as much as $200,000 more.
Many homebuyers like the Rameys have come to rural places like Sultan in search of more affordable housing, amid a societal shift in how employers approach remote work.
Hundreds of new homes have been built in the city’s north end, and more are planned. Since 2018, the city has permitted nearly 700 single-family homes, according to the planning department.
“We’re on year three of this level of growth,” Sultan Mayor Russell Wiita said.
‘We don’t really get Uber Eats out here’
Jared Ramey, who works from home, said he has no immediate plans to return to his Bellevue office.
“If it hadn’t been for the possibility of remote work, I don’t know how long it would have taken to find (a house) we liked within decent commuting distance,” he said. “We might have had to save up for five more years.”
Sarah Ramey said the two have been enjoying small-town life.
“We did have to give up creature comforts — we don’t really get Uber Eats out here,” she said.
She is looking forward to more restaurant options and community events. Population growth has been paralleled by new businesses opening in Sultan this year. Good Brewing Co. opened in February and Sultan Thai Restaurant opened last week. A new martial arts school opened earlier this month. A local fitness center expanded.
The Rameys attended a Welcome Walk in downtown Sultan in February. The Sky Valley Chamber of Commerce started the monthly walks to help new and old residents meet one another.
Wiita said many new residents haven’t had the chance to attend community events yet due to COVID-19. That is changing.
“One of the important things for me with this growth,” the mayor said, “is making sure we hold onto the sense of community that we have always had.”
‘Record year after record year’
Up Sultan Basin Road, farmland collides with booming suburbs. Large lots have been carved into subdivisions. It’s a little crowded, but still has a rural atmosphere with mountain views.
In 2020, the city permitted 185 single-family homes. And in 2021, it approved a whopping 247 homes.
“We didn’t slow down through COVID,” said Andy Galuska, the city’s community development director. “It’s been record year after record year.”
He anticipates another 200 new homes this year — substantial growth for Sultan.
Meanwhile, housing prices have spiked, a trend seen in rural areas across the country. Galuska said homes were selling for less than $300,000 in 2018.
By 2044, the city is expected to gain an additional 3,200 residents for a population of 8,672, according to a growth target set by Snohomish County. Homes in Sultan’s development pipeline already account for 84% of the projected growth.
Other rural cities like Granite Falls and Stanwood are also ahead of schedule in meeting their growth targets.
So far, the boom in Sultan shows no signs of slowing down. The city still has plenty of land, Galuska said.
The challenge is infrastructure. As the wastewater treatment plant nears capacity, the city is planning to build a new facility.
Traffic is an ongoing frustration. The city is trying again to address gridlock on U.S. 2, where delays can reach an hour-and-a-half during peak times. About 100 people attended an open house earlier this month on four options to improve congestion.
The city also plans to build a new east-west road between downtown and Sultan Basin Road. The project aims to provide an alternative connection when U.S. 2 is congested. Public outreach is planned this year to decide on preferred routes.
Galuska said the city has applied for state and federal grants for several transportation projects.
Impact fees help pay for new infrastructure when there is new construction. For example, the city charges a one-time traffic fee of $8,787 on developers. Total traffic mitigation fees for the Cobble Hill development were $486,634, based on the number of peak hour trips, according to a recent city report.
‘What the country is all about’
Susan Greene, 76, has run Flat Iron Gallery for 43 years in downtown Sultan. The gift and home decorating store “has a little bit of everything” and also sells discounted furniture.
She grew up on Trout Farm Road in north Sultan, where her dad ran a dairy and grew raspberries. She remembers when five families used to live on her street and “cow pastures were everywhere.”
Even with the recent growth, Greene said, “I still consider us country.”
She had advice for new residents: Get used to the rooster waking you up in the morning, or a noisy donkey, or a peacock in the road.
“This is what the country is all about,” she said.
Greene has a positive outlook on Sultan’s future. The biggest change is she no longer knows everybody.
“I’ve met a lot of wonderful people,” she said. “They want to support local businesses and want us to do well.”
Down the street, Emanuel Rodriguez Ruiz opened a taekwondo martial arts school in early May.
“It’s been my dream since I was 16 years old,” he said.
The 23-year-old, from Monroe, said martial arts helped him find discipline. He hopes to help kids in Sultan do the same.
With the city growing, Sultan was an ideal place to open his first business.
“From what I noticed, there is not much to do in Sultan right now,” he said.
Rodriguez Taekwondo Martial Arts offers classes for adults and kids as young as 4.
“It’s growing exponentially,” he said. “It’s surprising only being open for three weeks.”
‘It benefits us and benefits everybody’
J.B. Fitness, just next store, is far more than just a gym. There’s a smoothie bar, sauna, massage chair, red light therapy room, oxygen bar and a day care, as well as a classroom for yoga and Zumba.
Owners Joey and Candice Blair remodeled a vacant space, formerly Galaxy Chocolates, and held a grand opening earlier this month. The move more than doubled the gym’s footprint to 5,800 square feet, Candice Blair said.
“I just wanted to offer a place for people to come and meet with friends,” she said.
She also sees growth as positive, aside from the traffic.
“It benefits us and benefits everybody,” she said. “Better restaurants and gyms — all the things people are dying to have, but keeping the small-town feel.”
Melody Dazey, economic development manager with the Sky Valley Chamber of Commerce, is helping support entrepreneurs in Sultan. The city paid for her position for 2½ years with funds from the American Rescue Plan Act. The biggest challenge, Dazey said, is the lack of commercial space. For example, a child care center wants to open, but there are no suitable spots available. She hopes a recent city policy change will spark development.
The City Council voted in April to temporarily lower traffic impact fees for commercial development by 50% and waive fees for retail. The measure will be in place for two years.
A 160,000-square-foot commercial development with a grocery store, called Sultan Landing, has been proposed for U.S. 2 and 339th Avenue NE, across from the McDonald’s at the roundabout. The applicant asked the City Council to reduce development fees.
The city believes it can make up the lost funds in sales tax revenue.