A group convened by King County to help resolve the conflicts between agricultural uses of the Sammamish Valley and the flourishing wine industry remains divided on where to allow for growth.
For years tensions have simmered between the flourishing wine industry in the Sammamish River Valley and those who want to preserve and protect its farmlands. Earlier this year, King County convened a group to try to resolve the conflicts.
Six months later, advocates for both sides remain divided over how and where to allow expansion of the wine and beverage businesses that attract about 800,000 visitors a year, and have spread from Woodinville into rural and agricultural lands outside the city where current zoning limits retail sales.
“If (the Sammamish River Valley) wants to be the wine-tasting capital of the Northwest, they should make more room for wine tasting,” said John Corrado, a real-estate broker who supports development along the busy arterial that parallels the east side of the valley’s agricultural-production district.
The Woodinville City Council disagrees. In a strongly worded resolution approved unanimously this month, it urged the county to strengthen protections of rural and agricultural lands and direct new businesses to the nearly 190 acres of vacant and redevelopable commercial land within its city limits.
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“We regard any discussion of relaxing (land use) code as compounding what is already a very real threat to the continued viability of Sammamish River Valley agriculture,” said the resolution.
These aren’t new disputes. A more pro-growth Woodinville City Council in 2012 sought to move the urban growth boundary line south from downtown and north from the Hollywood wine district to allow for construction of a new hotel, more wineries and restaurants.
The Metropolitan King County Council rejected the request, but a promised study of land-use conflicts in the valley didn’t materialize until this year. King County Executive Dow Constantine authorized $70,000 for a consultant and the convening of a stakeholder group made up of wine, business and agriculture interests.
The consultant issued a draft report Wednesday. It will be up to Constantine to propose policy changes to the Metropolitan King County Council, and those likely won’t come until early next year.
The study was precipitated by the county’s crackdown on illegal tasting rooms in mid-2015. Eight were cited for operating retail businesses on land zoned rural or agricultural. In some cases, the county acknowledged, the businesses had been operating illegally and without consequences for several years.
Once the study was announced this year, all actions against offending businesses were put on hold, said John Starbard, director of the Department of Permitting and Environmental Review.
Around the same time, Public Health — Seattle & King County, issued violation notices to over 100 beverage-related businesses throughout the county for failing to provide a safe water supply, safe water-disposal system, hand-washing facilities, dishwashing facilities and/or restrooms.
Most have corrected their problems, said Becky Elias, manager of the food-safety program for Public Health. But she said the department is still working to bring 23 businesses into compliance. Of those, 20 are in the Sammamish Valley.
“Our goal is that all of these businesses — wineries, tasting rooms, breweries, tap rooms — meet basic health and safety requirements,” she said.
One recommendation that the stakeholder group did agree on was that the county clarify and consistently enforce its regulations.
“The leadership of this community is asking the county to enforce its code,” said Tom Quigley, president of the Sammamish Valley Alliance and the manager of a 65-acre farm in the agricultural-production district.
Woodinville City Councilmember Susan Boundy-Sanders said the county’s failure to enforce the current zoning, coupled with rumors that the county study could result in an easing of restrictions on rural and agricultural lands, is already driving up the value of farm and rural lands in the valley — pricing it beyond the means of most farmers.
An 8-acre parcel zoned agricultural along the arterial south of Woodinville sold recently for $1.85 million. The county’s assessed value was $715,000. A 4-acre property also zoned agricultural on the Woodinville-Redmond Road is now listed for $10 million.
“That’s what land speculation is doing to our agricultural land here,” Boundy-Sanders said.
The stakeholders also agreed that traffic and road conditions weren’t safe for pedestrians or drivers. The two-lane road south from Woodinville lacks shoulders, sidewalks or turn lanes. Some members described tourists walking next to speeding traffic as they tried to visit tasting rooms and wineries that appear close on a map of the valley.
But improving the roads or building sidewalks adds impervious surfaces and increases runoff to the farmlands below. Claire Thomas, who runs the Root Connection Community Supported Agriculture cooperative, said development uphill from her land has increased stormwater runoff and rendered five of 11 acres too wet to farm.
Some stakeholders supported adding a weekend shuttle among wineries and tasting rooms that could reduce traffic on some of the roads, but others questioned who would pay for it and whether people wanting to purchase cases of wine would ride it.
County Councilmember Kathy Lambert, who represents the unincorporated area east of the valley, said she’d like to see a wine-tourism overlay that would allow for more tasting rooms and wineries outside Woodinville, without changing the underlying zoning.
In 2012, she supported Woodinville’s request to move the urban growth boundary and noted that much of the agricultural land within the production district is protected against development. “Nobody wants to get rid of the agricultural area. It’s sacred,” Lambert said. But she said rural zoning allows for a wide variety of uses, including some retail sales.
She said that the wineries and tasting rooms within Woodinville, many located in warehouses, lack the ambience of those along the valley.
“On a Saturday night, sitting on the patio of Matthews Winery, dancing in the moonlight, that’s the experience people come here for.” she said. “Our problem is success.”
And with the county facing a $35 million to $50 million budget deficit in 2017, she said, the additional sales-tax revenue from new tasting rooms or other retail ventures would be welcome.
“The city of Woodinville wants all the money to come to them. I think we should share,” Lambert said.
Cliff Otis, who with his wife, Diane, owns Matthews Winery, said they want to understand the rules and have clarity and consistency in enforcement. They think the busy arterial outside Woodinville is a good place to put tasting rooms and other complimentary businesses such as cheese shops and bakeries.
They also would like to see the county improve the roadway to ensure the safety of visitors. Cliff Otis noted that the road is a major thoroughfare between Woodinville and Redmond, as well as heavily traveled by wine tourists.
“This is a multimillion-dollar industry. Why wouldn’t you want to add sidewalks, a center turn lane, a bicycle lane, at least one shoulder? Right now you’re taking your life in your hands,” he said.
But agricultural advocates are wary of more development and worried about the impacts of wider roads, parking lots, buildings and traffic on the farmlands.
“It’s never just a question of one lot or one tasting room,” said Quigley, the farm manager. “We need buffers along the agricultural lands. That’s what those rural lands have always been.”