At Oak Heights Elementary School on a recent Friday evening, John Bissel, a private land use planner, told an audience packed into the school’s library their homes are basically worthless.
“People aren’t going to want to buy your houses as houses anymore,” he told concerned neighbors.
The news wasn’t a surprise to those attending the impromptu meeting. After all, in August 2007, neighbors in the hilly Oak Knoll I and Oak Knoll II subdivisions off 164th Street Southwest first talked about banding together to sell at least 30 houses as a single property. Their efforts made news around the region.
Here was a group of homeowners who say they saw their property values drop steeply because of Snohomish County zoning changes. Terry Quick said he realized early that if he didn’t do something, he’d be unable to ever sell his house for anything close to its value.
Led by Quick, neighbors enlisted some help from real estate agents. But those realtors weren’t much help, Quick said, because their expertise was in residential real estate. Besides, Oak Knoll neighbors had bigger plans: to sell 20 to 28 acres of land — and as many as 45 houses — as one big piece of commercial real estate.
The Nov. 21 meeting at the elementary school represented a kickoff for the next phase of the plan.
Neighbors have formed a corporation. They’ve hired a lawyer and a planner and are getting advice from a commercial real estate broker.
“You need a (legal) entity that sets up ground rules,” said Everett attorney David Carson, whom neighbors have hired to represent them as they put together their game plan.
Quick said he estimates it will cost neighbors around $40,000 to make the plan fly: $30,000 to have Bissel’s company JBA2 LLC of Edmonds draw up the master site plan plus several thousand dollars in land-use appeal fees and attorney expenses.
Developer Viking Properties of Edmonds plans to build 13 condominiums on one-half acre a stone’s roll down the hill from Quick. The project’s construction permits were approved but Quick filed an 11th-hour appeal Oct. 28 in order to buy some time.
He and his neighbors say if the 20th Place Urban Center project is given the green light, the county will cut a new road through Oak Knoll, providing an alternate north-south route for drivers navigating crowded 164th. Such a road, Quick said, would ruin any shot neighbors have at selling their properties as a single piece of commercial land.
If the Viking project goes ahead, “we don’t have eight to 10 uninterrupted acres to build on, plus we have to deal with roads,” Quick said. “It basically condemns the rest of the neighborhood.”
Those Oak Knoll subdivisions lie in the midst of a county effort to create a walkable, transit-focused neighborhood. The Transit Pedestrian Village, as the county refers to it, encompasses several blocks north of 164th along Ash Way. The Ash Way Park and Ride is there and so is Newberry Square, a mixed-use commercial development with a meat shop, convenience store, business offices and a multi-story residential complex.
Quick said county building regulations have worked contrary to the intention of a walkable, transit-friendly neighborhood by encouraging developers to ask the county for exceptions that allow them to build lower density buildings than they should in a pedestrian village.
Oak Knoll residents, who live within the pedestrian village, do not have easy walking access to Newberry Square and the Park and Ride, Quick said.
Zoning now encourages condos mixed with retail and other high-density development that makes Oak Knoll residents’ homes less valuable, he said.
Oak Knoll neighbors, many of whom have lived in their houses for more than 25 years, have witnessed quick changes to their formerly quiet, semi-rural surroundings.
As high-density development with small yards replaces spacious lots with large backyards, many neighbors say they feel their backs are to the wall.
Steve McKay, a resident who lives just next to Oak Knoll, on 18th Place West, cautioned those gathered that they have to proceed carefully. He and some neighbors had reached an agreement to sell their properties together to a developer but the deal fell through when one of the neighbors backed out at the last minute, hoping to sell his property individually for more money.
Bissel told residents they’d be much better off forming a corporation and coming up with a master site plan that they can then use to market their homes as a commercial property and earn more money than by selling houses individually.
“If you guys can band together as one development entity and produce a master plan so you have a product to sell, you should be able to at least break even, Bissel said. “Snohomish County had no concept 30 years ago that there was going to be a substantial urban development in any way. This is not going back to low density, ever.”
Quick said he knows time is not on the group’s side: a county hearing examiner will hear his appeal Feb. 4.
Before that hearing, residents hope to convince Viking Properites to hold off on its plans for the 13-unit condo and, possibly, join the friendly neighborhood corporation.