A fight to control suburban sprawl grips the Seattle area

Land-use regulation is a hot topic in many parts of the US, but none more so than in King County (Seattle) and Washington State. Controversy came to a boil not long ago when a crowd of 900 protested an "area zoning" plan in Highline, a suburb of Seattle.

The crowd did not accept the county explanation that area zoning makes existing zoning conform with the 1977 community plan.

Angry at becoming what they called a "dumping ground" for growth, Highline critics call the new five-acre lot sizes in East County "a ghetto for the rich."

"Our taxes will go up because our land will increase in value," objected Cynthia Carper, presenting petitions from 152 neighbors. ms. Carper was among 26 speakers who favored maintaining single-family zoning despite plans to zone land to higher density. On the other hand, Anthony Scheda was embittered over county plans to zone down land he's owned for 52 years.

When the battle subsided, the score was 26 to 6.

Underscoring the brawl over sprawl is a dilemma in King County's search for a way to handle its explosive growth.

Perhaps cities and counties on the threshold of growth may learn by previewing King County's process. In County Councilman R. R. Greive's words, Highline is "the guinea pig."

The key question is whether to do the overall comprehensive plan first or community plans first. In retrospect, County Councilman Bruce Laing regrets that the county "development guide," updating the 1964 county comprehensive plan , wasn't done before most of the 13 community plans (some controversial community plans are up for council action in the coming months).

"That would have been ideal," he explained.

The country rationale for community plans first "was to build a constituency for growth management," recalled Keith Dearborn, then a county planning official. A citizen-advisory committee, appointed by the county, worked on each community plan.

"But it built a constituency of disgruntled property owners," rejoined Secretary of State Bruce Chapman, a GOP rival of County Executive John Spellman. In his bid for the governor's chair, Mr. Chapman has faulted gubernatorial candidate Spellman for overregulation in land use.

The development guide, on the back burner for years, is expected to emerge for full public debate next year. It calls for "infill" (using existing utilities by developing vacant lots in settled communities).

But Highline, among others, resists in-fill, area zoning, and two new countrywide zonings spawned by area zoning.

The county litany, however, is that responsibility for area zoning rests with the 1977 community-plan citizen committee.

"Quit making us the scapegoats! Stop passing the buck!" bristled teacher Patti Burges at a subsequent meeting. Fellow committeemen echoed her, saying that county officials and planners devised the 1977 plan, after what they called naive citizens voiced support for such a concept as preserving single-family neighborhoods. Committeemen felt betrayed by the county.

"Never have I been to a meeting as confrontive as this one," said a surprised County Councilman Paul Barden, a veteran of 13 years in politics.

Indeed, hostile citizens resented Mr. Barden's explanation that the county executive branch, not the legislative branch, drew up area zoning based "on the community's wishes."

Despite this series of hearings, the following precedural gaps may render some citizens voiceless.

First, no announcement was made to the assembly of 900 that only written testimony regarding objections to zoning changes would be considered. Verbal testimony may have been in vain.

Second, two zoning changes are at hand simultaneously. In addition to the 1, 956 acres already under the area-zoning plan, some 400 Highline owners accepted the county's invitation to request a rezone for land not in the plain.

Then angry owners, such as Ginger Babcock, threatened litigation because they weren't notified of owner-submitted applications. Under conventional rezonings, abutting owners such as Ms. Babcock receive mailed notice of hearings.

Ms. Babcock inadvertently found out about a $1.7 million multiunit application, she said. By chance, other owners learned about an application for a rezone for a $10 million project.

"We were overwhelmed," Jack Lynch said, in response to criticism on procedural gaps. Director of the county department of planning and community development, he pointed a finger of blame at the council. "They set up the meetings," he said.

Perhaps, he added, a listig of all 400 applications could be made available before the final council hearing, expected early next year when the council makes area-zoning decisions. However, Mr. Lynch went on, that's up to the council.

Clearly, other locales can use King County's experience as a crystal ball.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.