Faced with the loss of some $9 million in state funds for its efforts to illegally rezone flood-prone farmland into a car lot for local auto dealer Dwayne Lane, the Snohomish County Council has backed off, at least for now, in its bid to pave Island Crossing.
With this latest chapter in the ongoing battle between this County Council and responsible planning temporarily behind us, perhaps we can take a look at what’s really going on in Snohomish County’s tortured relationship with good planning.
A clear pattern has emerged with this council where the fundamental goals of the state’s planning laws – creating vibrant cities and towns with good housing and jobs, while protecting working farms and natural areas from poorly planned development – are concerned. This council, led by Gary Nelson, John Koster and Jeff Sax, has undertaken an outrageous and irresponsible agenda of handing over county land to sprawl developers in clear violation of state laws designed to protect existing communities and taxpayers from the high costs of sprawl.
Let’s look at a few examples that illustrate the problem:
* The rezoning of 110 acres at Island Crossing near Arlington: Car dealer Dwayne Lane has been lobbying Republicans to “dedesignate” protected agricultural land at Island Crossing to allow a high-profile car lot visible from I-5 since the mid-1990s. Three times the courts have rejected decisions allowing the development. They have ruled that the farmland is too valuable to be paved forever. Still, this council has vowed to press on with the fight for one man’s financial interest at huge expense to the taxpayers of Snohomish County. The county will go before a Superior Court judge in April in hopes of finally rezoning the land for Lane and other developers.
* A failure to plan for adequate sports fields in our communities: For years, the county has ignored the need for more athletic fields for our children. The council has neglected to seek available state funding, ignored opportunities for public-private partnerships, and has failed to acquire and develop available sites for new fields. In fact, the council majority has expressed its desire to sell most of 300 county-owned acres at the Cathcart Landfill to private developers rather than provide for kids’ needs.
The result of the council’s failure to meet its obligation to the community has, predictably, led local sports leagues to fend for themselves. In some cases, this has meant constructing fields, with tacit county approval, on protected farmland in violation of the law. In the most noteworthy case, the county was forced to own up to its errors and bar two Little Leagues from fields they constructed near Snohomish, leaving the children no place to play.
* The County Council’s attempts to dismantle the collaborative group of city and county planning officials known as Snohomish County Tomorrow: Last spring the council, again led by the trio of Koster, Sax and Nelson, passed an ordinance that would have gutted effective local government participation in county comprehensive planning. County Executive Aaron Reardon wisely vetoed the ordinance, recognizing it as yet another attack on wise land use planning by this council.
The majority on the County Council has an interesting way of responding to criticism of this pattern of resistance to, if not outright subversion of, the state’s guiding law on land use planning: Ignore the issue and attack the critics as “radicals” and “extremists.”
I would respectfully argue that protecting valuable farmland in a county that has less than 5 percent of its land still designated for agriculture is hardly radical. Brazenly turning one’s back on the legal responsibility to provide adequate recreational facilities for the citizenry, and selling out prime farmland in the process, just might be.
Similarly, saving taxpayers from the heavy burden of subsidizing new roads, sewers, police and fire protection, and storm water treatment, which is the inevitable result of allowing growth to sprawl outside our existing communities, is far from extreme. Forcing these costs on taxpayers while private developers get rich just might be.
The community – that is, those people who don’t own car dealerships and those who don’t stand to profit from decisions to open up what little protected farmland Snohomish County has left for every get-rich development scheme – needs this council to abandon its illegal agenda and start standing up to its responsibilities.
1000 Friends of Washington is going to work hard with the people of Snohomish County – in local communities and in the Legislature – to acquire and focus resources on our existing neighborhoods to provide more recreational facilities and better choices in housing and transportation.
We invite the Snohomish County Council to stop its ideological grandstanding and join us in working for the benefit of the greater good.
John Healy is communications director of 1000 Friends of Washington, which advocates for stronger cities and towns, working farms and healthy natural places.