Growth puts Snohomish County planners in tough spot

EVERETT — Snohomish County expects to grow by more than 200,000 people in the next couple of decades.

Lawmakers are planning for the population surge.

Specifically, they’re trying to determine whether the community would be better off encouraging more growth in the expanding suburbs east of Mill Creek and in the North Creek area east of Bothell. An alternative would channel more people to cities such as Everett and Lynnwood, where better infrastructure exists, particularly roads and schools.

Policymakers, obviously, can’t tell people where to move. And that’s part of the conundrum.

“There are different views of the world: what you’d like to see and what’s happening,” County Council Chairman Dave Somers said during an initial hearing on the issue Wednesday.

While there’s logic in encouraging more growth in Everett, the reality is that the county’s North Creek area is, for now, the Puget Sound region’s hottest housing market.

The growth-planning decision is part of an update to the county’s comprehensive plan that must be finished by June 30. It also takes on zoning changes, long-term plans for county parks, roads and other capital projects. The current plan was adopted in 2005 and attempts to project growth through 2025.

About 40 people spoke during Wednesday’s hearing. Proceedings are scheduled to resume at 10:30 a.m. June 10 on the eighth floor of the county’s Robert Drewel Building, 3000 Rockefeller Ave., Everett.

The county’s population is expected to hit 955,000 by 2035, up from about 741,000 in 2014.

County Executive John Lovick has endorsed the plan with more suburban growth. Homebuilders and the city of Everett also favor that route.

“You can lay out as many plans as you want, but people are going to shop for housing where they want to live,” said Mike Pattison, a lobbyist for Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish counties. “Those home-buying decisions are driven far more by factors such as school districts and proximity to employment than by planning documents.”

For those reasons, builders favor preparing for more development in the unincorporated areas east of Bothell and Mill Creek — because it’s already happening. A few years down the road, it will be too late to zone the area for smaller lots so it makes sense to do it now, Pattison said.

That route would lead the county to plan for 66,000 new residents over the next 20 years in the county’s southwest urban growth area, as North Creek and other nearby areas are known.

Under that scenario, Everett would plan for about 38,000 new residents by 2035.

The main alternative under consideration — one that conservationists and regional planners have endorsed — would add 60,000 new people to Everett over that time span. That’s like adding Marysville’s population inside Everett’s existing city limits.

“We have gone on record saying we don’t think that’s feasible, even if we have the land-use capacity,” said Allan Giffen, Everett’s planning director.

The largest new housing development underway in Everett — the Riverfront Project on former industrial land east of I-5 — would add about 400 units of housing. At most, that’s likely to accommodate 1,000 people. That means almost all future housing development in Everett, under either plan, will have to come in the form of apartments and condos wedged into existing neighborhoods.

It’s better to encourage more growth in Everett and Lynnwood, said Kristin Kelly, who represents the conservation-minded policy groups Futurewise and the Pilchuck Audubon Society. Expanding single-family subdivisions into rural zones promises to make traffic worse, erase green spaces and drive up taxes to pay for new infrastructure.

“Every time we go further and further out, that means more and more people on our roads,” Kelly said. “And there are many costs to that, not just money but environmental costs.”

Kelly also asked people to think about what kind of county they want to live in.

“Do we want it eaten up with more and more homes?” she said. “Because that’s the issue.”

The county’s planning commission, which advises the council on land-use issues, also favored the plan that puts more future growth into Everett. It fell short of the votes needed to make a formal recommendation, however.

At Wednesday’s meeting, former County Councilman Dave Gossett made an impassioned argument for channeling growth to urban areas. Gossett criticized Lovick for supporting the plan that envisions south county suburbs pushing further east.

“I frankly do not understand why the executive is supporting this alternative,” he said. “It involves taking properties that are scattered throughout south county and just upzoning them just because they can be developed. Not because they easily can deal with traffic and infrastructure, not because it makes real sense to develop them, but just because you can. It’s really poor land-use planning.”

Another policy under debate is an incentive system designed to preserve farmland and forests. The transfer of development rights program allows builders to buy credits that put conservation easements on farms and forests in exchange for permission to build projects elsewhere at higher density.

Futurewise is against weakening the program, but the Master Builders Association argues that it forces its members to pay extra for denser projects that should be encouraged in the first place. Conservationists, farmers, builders and tribes all supported the program when it was adopted in 2013.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @NWhaglund.

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