Comment: County executive should drop rural cluster housing plan

The planning commission rejected the plan to protect commercial forests and limit rural sprawl.

By Tom Campbell / For The Herald

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers continues to do a lot of great work in his position.

His draft 2024 Comprehensive Plan is well done; his work on behavioral health, affordable housing and early learning is highly commendable. And he is promoting priority initiatives on climate change. Why then does he insist on promoting bedroom communities in rural areas by submitting an initiative rejected by the County Planning Commission to the County Council?

The rural cluster code amendments the county executive submitted to the Planning Commission last spring were unanimously rejected. The commission held a public hearing, debated the merits of the amendments and in an unusual move rejected the proposed amendments. The rural cluster proposal would increase the number of lots on which developers could build by increasing parcel sizes and incentives. Already you can see proposals for 200 lot subdivisions in the rural areas.

There are many important reasons that this proposal was and should be rejected again:

• It will result in a continued loss of key commercial forest and agricultural lands.

• It will increase rural growth at a time when Snohomish County is under an agreement to reduce rural population increases with the Puget Sound Regional Council.

• It will increase traffic congestion on rural roads and access to highways already under enormous pressure and that lack funding.

• It will increase our carbon footprint through increased transportation emissions and loss of carbon-rich forests, contrary to our shared requirements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

• It will stress our water supply and groundwater systems at a time when they are already at a critical juncture.

I had a meeting with Somers and his staff to argue against going any further with this rural cluster initiative. Unfortunately, this spring, he has decided to pursue it again. It would be easy to buy the developers’ argument that the code amendments will not increase density; that it is only applying existing zoning and densities. It is also persuasive that lands not used for these rural bedroom communities will be put into permanent greenspace.

While these might be true they are heading Snohomish County in totally the wrong direction.

We cannot continue to lose our commercial forests. In an amendment to the draft 2024 comprehensive plan that the Planning Commission adopted, I proposed we correct age-old rural, agricultural and forest zoning practices so that we are not promoting rural development. The R-5 zoning that was done in the 1990s has promoted rural clusters and sprawl. There are many new ways to protect our forest and agricultural lands through transfer of development rights, carbon sequestration, conservation easements and new regenerative forest and agricultural techniques.

We need leadership to understand that we need to promote density and affordable housing in our urban growth areas not furthering incentives in our rural areas. As determined by Snohomish County, we have enough buildable land within our current urban growth areas.

We need to take stands for climate change, for rural jobs, for efficient and sustainable housing.

Unfortunately, the rural cluster zoning amendments and promotion of new bedroom communities is not the way to do it. Executive Somers and the County Council should reject and withdraw the current proposal in favor of protecting our commercial forest and agricultural lands.

Tom Campbell is vice chair of the Snohomish County Planning Commission and was a principal architect of the landmark Growth Management Act.

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