BOTHELL — Chuck Austin’s family has owned his rural property on 43rd Avenue SE since the early 1970s. He moved to the area northeast of Bothell from Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood, thinking he’d become a country gentleman.
For a while, Austin lived out that dream.
A few years ago new housing developments started springing up around him. Austin and his neighbors watched on the margins as the North Creek area of Snohomish County morphed into suburbia.
“We’re not on the edge of anything — we’re surrounded,” he said. “The county has to recognize that we are no longer rural. We’re in the heart of the urban.”
Austin now drives past small-lot subdivisions to the north, south and west. There’s Timber Creek by Toll Brothers, Lennar at Lidera and Prestwick at North Creek. Village at Brookshire, Lennar at Canton Ridge … the list goes on.
In the Trovas rural cluster subdivision on 51st Avenue SE, “estate-style” houses start in the $800,000s.
“I can’t pronounce it, so I can’t afford it,” said Austin, as he struggled to keep the names straight.
State’s biggest market for new houses
Nobody knows Washington’s hottest housing market like the people who have been left out.
Austin, an outgoing 60-year-old former construction worker, sums up in often-colorful language the situation that a few dozen people on his part of the street are experiencing. They occupy a rural enclave that pokes into the suburban landscape overtaking the unincorporated areas east of Bothell and Mill Creek.
“This is really the changing of the guard right here,” Austin said.
He lives in a rambler where, like many of his neighbors, he has a bulldozer and a few other pieces of heavy equipment parked in a vast, overgrown yard. His immediate neighbors rely on septic systems and propane tanks, while new arrivals up the street have sewers and natural gas lines. Morning and afternoon traffic stacks up on what was a dead-end street just two years ago; the county opened it up to serve the new homes.
Many old-timers are ready to leave. They’ve experienced added noise, traffic and crowded schools, with little reward in return.
Zoning decisions made a decade ago keep them looking on as the world changes around them. It’s a battle that has played out throughout the county during past growth spurts, in places such as Lake Stevens and Marysville. But nowhere has seen such a supercharged pace of change as they have.
North Creek remains by far the strongest market for new home sales anywhere in Washington. An average of 85 new homes have sold in the area’s subdivisions every month over the past year. The next highest was 59 homes per month in the South Hill-Puyallup area of Pierce County.
The stats come from Metrostudy, a housing-data firm based near Mill Creek, where it has an unobstructed view of the unfolding boom in residential construction.
Much of the demand in North Creek comes from high-tech workers with children. Despite good salaries, many of them are finding it difficult to buy homes on the Eastside in King County.
“It has become a go-to area for folks who can’t afford Kirkland, Juanita — even Woodinville for that matter,” said Todd Britsch, Metrostudy’s regional director. “The (Northshore) school district is a huge factor in that, because it is a phenomenal school district.”
The real-estate market Britsch is describing includes more than just the 35th Avenue corridor, a north-south arterial west of Austin and his neighbors that serves many of the new developments. The area stretches north through Mill Creek, Silver Firs and Silver Lake, and south to Canyon Park and Maltby.
The average sales price for new homes there has been on a steep ascent. It’s hovered at $560,000 this year, compared to $510,000 in 2014 and $363,000 in 2012.
Britsch and other real-estate watchers expect prices to climb further, unless the county expands its urban growth areas. Current and future projects in North Creek will sell out within three years, Britsch and others predict.
“We’re rapidly running out of inventory,” he said.
Some homeowners along 43rd Avenue SE would love to have their properties up-zoned, making it more attractive to sell to developers and move out.
It won’t happen quickly or easily, if at all.
Petitioning the county for a zoning change would be expensive and would take several years. Neighbors also are sure to face opposition from environmental groups who reason there’s plenty of land available for new houses, without adjusting the growth line.
The county drew the growth boundary through the area in 1995, as part of its first comprehensive plan under the state Growth Management Act.
When county officials revisited the growth boundary in 2005, some 43rd Avenue neighbors believed they would be rezoned for urban development. They weren’t. Many are still unsure why.
Their rural lifestyle might have been spared somewhat, but in 2006 the County Council expanded the eastern edge of the growth boundary just to the north of them. That occurred after a developer appealed the county’s 2005 comprehensive plan and reached a settlement to change the growth line. It involved swapping urban and rural parcels in a way that was supposed to protect the headwaters of nearby Little Bear Creek.
It also resulted in the sudden zoning split on 43rd Avenue at 188th Street SE.
On the south side of the divide, the county typically allows just one house per 5 acres. On the north side, developers can build six or more homes per acre.
To service the developments, the county in 2014 opened up 43rd Avenue SE. In the years ahead, county engineers are looking to extend the road north to 180th Street SE and south as far as Maltby Road.
Laura Kathryn moved to the street 15 years ago for a rural feel that’s starting to slip away. Her 12-year-old son attends nearby Fernwood Elementary, with 15 portable classrooms out back. If the county moves ahead with widening 43rd Avenue, it could eat up a good chunk of her yard.
“We’re here to keep them happy because we have the rural look … we’re like the Hollywood facade,” she said. “They just want this to be a nice facade for all of the people moving in here.”
Caroline Atwood bought her property in 1969 and raised two children there. She and her husband used to keep horses, cows, turkeys, pigs, ducks, chickens, cats and dogs.
They now share a property line with the future North Creek High School, which is set to open in 2017.
She says water runoff has since increased on her land. She said she never wanted the sidewalks, street lights or power lines installed near her home, as they only seem to benefit the new developments.
“It didn’t do anything for us,” Atwood said.
County Council Chairman Terry Ryan said the neighbors have legitimate complaints.
“They have a rural neighborhood that was urbanized and they’re not getting any benefit from it,” said Ryan, whose district covers the area. “I’m very sympathetic.”
It’s unclear what the councilman could do to help, at least in the short term.
To change the urban growth boundary, the neighbors would have to go through a formal process known as “the land-use docket.” It’s long, tedious and expensive, with no guaranteed outcome.
“The County Council could end up voting no on it,” Ryan said.
The neighbors would have to submit their request for a zoning change by the end of October. The council wouldn’t review it until the summer of 2018. A hearing wouldn’t take place until the fall of 2019.
The cost of fees and a required environmental impact study the neighbors would have to pay for could exceed $50,000 — a price they simply can’t afford.
Otherwise, they could wait to see what happens in 2023, when the county must update its comprehensive plan. The current tensions over growth presage a fight that’s likely to come at that time.
Is there enough land for the growth?
Demographers expect Snohomish County’s population to grow by 200,000 people over the next two decades.
Conservationists, including Pilchuck Audubon Society executive director Kristin Kelly, contend there’s already enough urban land set aside for the homes those people will need.
Kelly said small tweaks might make sense on parts of the urban growth line, but she fears that any significant expansion would lead to unnecessary destruction of farmlands and forests. She also warns that sprawl will worsen traffic congestion, leaving taxpayers to subsidize roads, utilities and other urban services.
“I’m not saying that these people (on 43rd Avenue SE) don’t have a good argument, but as soon as you expand the boundary, it’ll be the next people and then it’ll be the next people,” Kelly said.
“Urban growth boundaries should be defined by natural, logical borders, not a willy-nilly mosaic,” said Mike Pattison, a lobbyist for the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties.
His organization is looking to expand the area’s urban growth boundary some two miles eastward as part of the next comprehensive-plan update in 2023.
“In our view, it would make perfect sense to push it to Highway 9,” Pattison said.
They might have an ally in Leslie Foley, one of the neighbors from 43rd Avenue — if she sticks around.
Foley remembers a morning decades ago when she chased a neighbors’ cows down what was then a dead-end street.
The pace of change accelerated a couple of years ago after the county opened up the street, drawing in traffic that otherwise might have used 35th Avenue to the west. Lately she’s been watching luxury SUVs zoom past, heading to and from smart-looking new houses up the street.
She says change has come and her neighborhood has been left out.
“We didn’t want more density in the beginning, but the writing is on the wall,” said Foley, who is preparing to leave the area after 40 years.