Forum: County ignored land-use law in allowing health center

A 32-unit behavioral health center near Stanwood doesn’t fit in the rural, agricultural area.

By Don Burkhart / Herald Forum

There is a small triangle of rural land that is bounded on the south by Stanwood, on the north by the Snohomish County line, east by I-5, and west by Skagit Bay. This is perhaps the last bastion of undeveloped rural land west of I-5 in the all of Snohomish County. This unique and special farmland area, sitting squarely on a sort of continental divide where waters south flow to the Stillaguamish River and those north to the Skagit River, was referred to in Tom Robbins classic “Another Roadside Attraction” as “a giant salad bowl” due to its watery green farmland.

I cannot think of a better argument for land use planning than a proposed multi-unit facility to be located in the heart of such a special rural residential area (“Tribes granted permit to build behavioral health center near Stanwood,” The Herald, March 13.)

Just why is this area so rural? Because the Comprehensive Plan and all that followed over the past 30 years codified exactly that as its character (and outcome). Now, a u-turn of events of breathtaking self-servitude threatens the very underpinnings that have made this area what it is.

Snohomish County has approved the siting of a medium-sized multi-unit housing development smack dab in the middle of this precious and preserved-for-decades residential rural area. How can this possibly be? Is this not the self-same entity that has heretofore vigorously enforced a near non-development ban in the area. Is this not the entity charged with the implementation and enforcement of the Comp Plan and all the regulations and red tape that comes with it? Where is that champion today? It is no less than complicit in encouraging, if not actively facilitating this gross violation of decades of carefully administered land use.

I ask you, by what conceivable reasoning is it that dropping a 32-unit apartment complex smack in the center of a rural farming community makes any sort of sense? If I were to propose such a development, an apartment complex or say, a motel in this same location, how far do you imagine I would get with that? I submit that I’d be laughed out of the planning department. Yet this precise use is what’s being allowed.

Is there something magic about the term “healing center” that makes this any different? Does the intended use somehow render inert the underlying physical realities of the facility? Or is it because of who is the sponsor? Are we not allowed the expectation that all residents, no matter their heritage. must heel to the same set of morals, principles, and laws that our collective society has deemed necessary and desirable as to function? Or are we forever trying to address past disparities by creating future ones? Seems rather self-defeating.

Many who live in this area came here because of the very protections that are now being summarily overruled. Life decisions on housing and general day-to-day existence were made predicated on the knowledge of the governing structure beneath, and a faith in the governing body to abide by and adhere to that standard. Instead, they are being betrayed by the very entity whose job it is to protect them. In this case Snohomish County is derelict in its duty to protect its citizens and enforce the rule of law evenly and without bias.

This situation lays bare the reality of government-based land-use legislation and policy. The underlying principle that applies is: “If you the property owner want it then the answer is ‘no’, but if we want then it we will find a way, an exception, a variance that will make it happen.”

And we wonder why our public institutions are no longer respected.

Don Burkhart, formerly of Stanwood, lives in Mukilteo.

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