County Council approves growth plan; focus on Everett

EVERETT — The Snohomish County Council adopted a plan Wednesday that favors more population growth in Everett over the next 20 years, rather than the burgeoning south-county suburbs.

A council majority also handed a victory to the home-building industry over conservationists and farmers, by reducing the scope of a program intended to preserve agricultural land and forests.

The biggest effects of the population target are likely to be felt in suburbs east of Mill Creek and Bothell — the Puget Sound region’s hottest housing market. Councilman Terry Ryan represents the area as part of Council District 4.

“We’ve had to bear the brunt of the development,” Ryan said. “The infrastructure didn’t grow with the population and I didn’t think we could increase any of the densities. It wouldn’t be fair to my district.”

Council members reasoned that Everett, as is, has the right zoning and infrastructure to absorb a greater share of the growth. They also said encouraging denser neighborhoods in Everett would boost the city’s chances in the next round of Sound Transit light-rail expansion, known as ST3.

Separately, the council also declined to upzone parts of Ryan’s district and unincorporated areas near Lynnwood represented by Councilwoman Stephanie Wright. The change, had it been approved, would have allowed “air condos,” which allow up to 12 homes per acre. That’s up to triple the density allowed under existing zoning for the areas in question.

The tightly clustered developments were a source of controversy during the building boom a decade ago.

Snohomish County’s population reached nearly 760,000 in 2014, the U.S. Census Bureau has estimated. County planners expect that figure to increase by about 200,000 people by 2035.

The plan the council approved with a 5-0 vote Wednesday anticipates 60,000 of those new residents moving into Everett over the next 20 years. That’s like adding the equivalent of Marysville’s population within Everett city limits.

An alternative plan under consideration, which Executive John Lovick’s administration recommended with the building industry’s support, would have shifted about 20,000 of those people away from Everett, to suburban areas in south Snohomish County.

A key battle Wednesday involved a program known as transfer of development rights.

The concept allows the owners of farms and forestland to sell their development rights to homebuilders. The developers, in turn, receive credits to build at higher densities in urban areas. The program has existed since 2013.

By a 4-1 vote, the council Wednesday exempted single-family houses and most townhomes from the program.

That means homebuilders don’t need to buy credits to build at maximum densities allowed on their property. Council Chairman Dave Somers was on the losing end of the vote.

The transfer program remains in effect for apartments and condos.

“This tool for saving farmland has been undermined by the Master Builders Association,” said Kristin Kelly, who represents the conservation-minded groups Futurewise and the Pilchuck Audubon Society.

While the transfer program may still see some use, it won’t be to the extent intended. Kelly said an appeal sent out by a Stanwood farmer who wanted the program kept intact got more responses on social media than anything else she’s seen in 20 years of work on land-use policy.

Mike Pattison, a lobbyist for the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, countered that buying preservation credits would have added unnecessary expense to new homes built here.

“The growth is going to go somewhere else,” he said.

Council members took the actions as part of a comprehensive plan update, a requirement under the state’s Growth Management Act. Long-term planning for parks, roads and other infrastructure also figured into the update. Elected officials were under a June 30 deadline to act. They’re scheduled to revisit the decisions in 2023.

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

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