Rapid expansion has caused growing pains for Lake Stevens

LAKE STEVENS — Just one annexation more and the city will finally surround the lake it’s named for.

As Lake Stevens continues to grow, it’s set to gain up to 3 square miles and thousands of new households.

The city has annexed more than 5 square miles since 2000, quadrupling its size and nearly quintupling its population.

With growth, however, come growing pains.

People who live in Lake Stevens say they have a hard time getting around the city’s meandering streets. Road construction hasn’t kept up with the population. Neither has the number of stores, restaurants and parks, or the land set aside for them.

“Snohomish is kind of putting us to shame here,” said Ginger Washburn, 41, who has lived in Lake Stevens for about 20 years. “They have the big library and new shopping and everything. We haven’t really done anything around here.”

In 2000, Lake Stevens was the 12th-largest city in the county, with 6,361 people. Now it’s the fifth-largest city, with a population of 29,949, leapfrogging right over Snohomish, Monroe, Arlington, Mill Creek, Mountlake Terrace and Mukilteo.

Lake Stevens is planning for 39,340 people by 2035.

Because the city’s largest growth spurt happened right in the middle of the recession, officials chose to funnel limited resources into public safety. They kept up with police services, hired a few planners and designated funds to control milfoil in the lake.

Mayor Vern Little said the city put other projects on hold during the recession. Now that property values — and therefore tax dollars — are bouncing back, officials hope to catch up on road construction, business development and planning for a new library, parks and trails.

Some projects are set to move forward in the next two years, including an expanded park in south Lake Stevens and possibly a new library. The city is still calculating costs, seeking funding sources and setting timelines for other projects, such as building a new city hall and redesigning roads near Frontier Village.

The city is pursuing state funding for major road projects and planners are working to identify land for new businesses to develop in areas previously zoned for housing.

“There’s not a lot of empty space, so when we redevelop, we need to do it right,” Mayor Vern Little said. “If it was easy, I guess it would have been done a long time ago.”


Though the city’s street fund jumped from $458,000 to $1.67 million between 2000 and 2014, most of the funds go toward road maintenance rather than new construction.

Loren Washburn, 44, grew up in an area that was annexed in the mid-2000s. He remembers when his mailing address switched to Lake Stevens from Everett. He’s seen open fields turn into subdivisions and back roads become busy thoroughfares.

What he hasn’t seen are enough new roads, intersections and sidewalks, he said.

Access to Frontier Village and the layout at the interchange of Highway 9 and Highway 204 is particularly bad, he said, with its convergence of lanes, confusing exits and myriad entrances to the shopping center.

City and state officials agree something needs to be done about the intersection, which handles about 37,000 vehicles per day.

There are several options for fixing the interchange, ranging in price from $19 million to $70 million, according to the state Department of Transportation. None of the options is funded, engineering manager Cathy George said.

In south Lake Stevens, 20th Street SE is a priority for the city, administrator Jan Berg said. Snohomish County finished the first phase of construction. The city is still working to identify funding for phase two, budgeted at $22 million by the county.

Allen Deatherage, 28, has lived in south Lake Stevens for about two and a half years. He appreciates the easy access to Cavalero Hill Community Dog Park and the Centennial Trail, but would like better connections between south Lake Stevens and the city’s downtown core.

The lake makes it difficult to plan new routes, Little said.

“There isn’t a straight road anywhere,” he said. “They all have to go around.”

Businesses and recreation

Bringing new businesses to town is a high priority for the city, Little said.

Snohomish County zoned most of the land around Lake Stevens for housing. The need for new commercial corridors was part of the city’s motivation for annexing that territory.

Little was on the council when the first round of annexations took place in 2003.

“The reason we decided to do that was to really be able to control our own destination as a city,” he said.

The council wanted control of zoning to balance commercial and residential uses, he said. Commercial corridors draw sales tax revenue to bolster the city budget.

The city has set aside commercial space and planned business districts in the southwest quadrant of the city, along Highway 9 heading toward Snohomish. The area was annexed in 2010, and now it’s a matter of getting businesses to set up shop, Berg said.

Plans are in the works to redevelop northeast Lake Stevens, including downtown, Little said. The city has mapped future business zones along Hartford Drive and Highway 92.

Outdoor recreation opportunities are another focus for the city.

No new parks have been added in 15 years, and all city parks are on the north side of the lake.

The city and county have partnered on a master plan for the Cavalero Hill Community Park in south Lake Stevens, Berg said. They hope to start a public process this fall to gather ideas. Tentative plans include adding a skate park.

The city also is trying to figure out a way to create trails or small parks within power line corridors, Little said.

Eventually, the city hopes to move Lake Stevens City Hall off the North Cove Park property, which would open more space for parking and activities at the popular lakefront location. A plan was adopted in 2005 to move City Hall to a city property on Grade Road, Berg said.

“We are in the process of reviewing this plan to see if this site is still the best place to move now that the city is larger than just the downtown,” Berg said.

New parks were a fairly low priority when the economy floundered. Recreational opportunities are naturally abundant in Lake Stevens thanks to the 1,000-acre body of water smack in the middle of the city, Little said.

To manage water quality, the city partners with Snohomish County to remove milfoil when it becomes a problem for boaters and swimmers, Little said. Controlling the noxious plant isn’t cheap: The city estimates it will have paid $700,000 by 2020 to manage the problem.


Lake Stevens used to fund its own library, but voters decided to annex into the Sno-Isle Library Services district in 2008.

Today, the library is the second smallest of all 21 branches in the Sno-Isle system.

The 2,400-square-foot library, tucked on the North Cove Park property next to Lake Stevens City Hall, serves about 40,000 people. It follows the same boundaries as the Lake Stevens School District.

In comparison, the 6,300-square-foot Granite Falls Library serves 17,000 people, and the 20,000-square-foot Monroe Library serves 35,000 people.

After the annexation, the city and Sno-Isle planned to float a bond measure to build a larger library at a new location. But that hasn’t happened.

“That second step got derailed when the great recession hit,” Sno-Isle spokesman Ken Harvey said. “The community has basically been living with what it has.”

Pending city council and public support, a bond measure could move forward in the next year or two. No specific plans are in place yet.


Annexations meant the police department had to nearly triple in size since 2000 in order to keep pace with the population.

“The biggest issue during annexations was ‘Will we have police services?’ ” Little said. “So policing became our priority.”

The Lake Stevens Police Department had 10 officers and several part-time support staff in 2000, with a budget of about $930,000. It’s now a $4.8 million department, with 28 employees and three vacancies that are set to be filled soon, Cmdr. Dennis Taylor said.

Internal problems with discipline and morale in the department related to the rapid expansion made headlines in 2012 and 2013. The department has since gained a new chief and added an Office of Professional Standards to manage internal investigations and officer discipline.

“The department grew, but there was no one who was standing guard over the values and culture of the organization,” Taylor said.

Those values include responding to all calls and solving problems, no matter how big or small, Chief Dan Lorentzen said.

The department is working on a five-year plan based on suggestions from employees. The plan is meant to outline the department’s core values and is set to become part of the training for new hires, Lorentzen said.

Looking ahead

Lake Stevens officials have turned their attention to the southeast corner of the lake. They plan to annex an area in unincorporated Snohomish County near the Machias Cutoff. About 4,500 people live there.

There’s no firm timeline for the annexation. The area is almost all residential, so the city aims to add commercial corridors in southwest Lake Stevens to boost sales tax revenue before they annex more houses, Little said. There’s also a lot of legwork to be done so residents know what annexation would mean for services and how much it would cost them in taxes.

Right now, property owners in Lake Stevens pay a 2014 tax rate of $13.07 per $1,000 assessed value, or $2,614 on a $200,000 home. In the slice of Snohomish County southeast of the lake, property owners pay about $2,642 — $28 more — on a $200,000 home.

The city also taxes utility providers, which generally leads to higher bills for gas, electric, cable and phone service. Utility taxes are split between the city’s general fund and street fund.

Along with the southeast corner of the lake, pockets of county property are tucked along the city’s northeast border. Officials say they eventually hope to annex those, as well.

A map on the wall in Lake Stevens City Hall shows the lake in blue, the city boundaries in color and unincorporated Snohomish County in gray.

“Every gray space up there, we think we need to bring it into the city at some point,” Little said.

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