Even without formal designations, the sleepy community of Maltby in south Snohomish County is still a city in the eyes of its residents...

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Even without formal designations, the sleepy community of Maltby in south Snohomish County is still a city in the eyes of its residents.

At its heart, the Maltby Cafe is a city hall and a chamber of commerce “rolled” into one: Locals and tourists socialize and do business over the cafe’s famed 9- by 9-inch cinnamon rolls. A few yards away, Nardone’s Barber Shop resembles a community center, where seniors joke alongside youngsters. And nearby, the renovated schoolhouse, filled with gift stores, is a quaint commercial stop.

But ask locals what they think of the latest plan by resident Greg Stephens to form a city, with a governmental structure independent of the county, and mixed answers ensue:

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“It’s a wonderful idea. We would have control over what is happening here right now and not be at the mercy of the Snohomish County Council,” said Joyce Hoikka, who has lived a few miles from downtown Maltby for 30 years. “We need to control growth or we will look exactly like Lynnwood — no trees, no wildlife. Soon we’ll reach a breaking point, and there’s no going back. That’s incredibly scary.”

Longtime resident and landowner Ron Nardone disagreed: “They said the same thing about Woodinville — that it would be a quaint little town, overhead would not be expensive and they wouldn’t raise taxes, and now it’s a big yuppie deal. That’s what’ll happen. It would just be another bureaucracy. I’d rather just take my chances with Snohomish County.”

Distilling the incorporation issue from the politics surrounding it is difficult, especially now. Stephens, an independent, is challenging County Councilman Jeff Sax, R-Snohomish, in the November election.

But even those who disagree with incorporation share in the worries about encroaching development in a rural area that has traditionally been forests, streams and farmland.

Stephens’ plan calls for a city of Maltby covering a 42-square-mile area, which would make it the largest city by area in the county. By comparison, Everett is 29.6 square miles and Lynnwood is 7.7 square miles. More than 25,000 people would live in the city of Maltby.

Stephens has submitted his proposal to be considered for a place on the County Council’s 2006 agenda — the first of many steps in a complicated process involving feasibility studies, public hearings and, ultimately, a vote of the people.

Because he believes doing nothing would only lead to annexation of Maltby by nearby cities, Stephens is hawking his plan as a way to maintain the rural character of Maltby and allow the residents to determine its future.

His plan includes apartments above storefronts in the downtown commercial core. It and a surrounding medium-density area would make up 20 percent of the city’s development. The remaining 80 percent of Maltby would resemble the clustered villages and surrounding green space of communities Stephens has visited in Switzerland and Austria.

Across the state, communities are examining the possibility of incorporation, and often in areas like Maltby the reason is local concerns about land use, said Jim Justin of the Association of Washington Cities, a lobbying group.

The Municipal Research Services Center of Washington has recorded 15 incorporations since 1990, compared with only one in the 20 years before that.

The last incorporation in Snohomish County was that of Mill Creek in 1983. Some of the most-recent incorporations have been in King County, including Sammamish in 1999 and Kenmore in 1998.

“It starts out just like how it’s starting in Maltby, where there is a group of citizens that, frankly, want a greater say in what their community looks like,” Justin said. “But the process is not easy.”

Incorporation isn’t a new concept in Maltby. Residents have heard varied proposals for incorporation over the past 20 years, including a 1997 attempt to incorporate about 12 square miles. That group lost momentum when Woodinville tried unsuccessfully to annex the area.

Most recently, Stephens proposed a 43-square-mile Maltby in 2003, but the County Council didn’t put it on its 2004 agenda. Now Stephens is back with a slightly smaller plan, and the will to press for it in his election bid for a seat on the County Council.

Proposed boundaries

The area proposed for incorporation includes seven neighborhoods: “downtown” Maltby, Cathcart, Little Bear Creek, Clearview, Echo Lake, Canyon Creek and Wellington. Each neighborhood would serve as an election district for a seven-member city council, Stephens said.

The city’s eastern limits would be the Snohomish and Snoqualmie rivers; the western border would run roughly along 43rd Avenue Southeast. The city would extend south to the King-Snohomish county line, and its northern boundary would be just south of the Silver Firs neighborhood..

He says his proposal would accommodate an additional 50,000 to 70,000 people in the next 20 years without cutting down forests. Under his plan of clustered villages, each 14-home cluster would be surrounded by 27 acres of open space and forest. The downtown area would have higher density, with an intermediate-density area between the downtown and clustered villages.

For skeptics, the big question is money.

“Will taxes go up?” asks Sandra Albright, one of three owners of the Maltby Cafe. “It sounds really great — I want to keep the community small — but we really need to find out exactly what it is. How can this be done without raising taxes?”

Ralph Walster, the owner of the Walsterway Iris Garden on Broadway Avenue, Maltby’s main drag, is more certain.

“It’s going to increase taxes — I’m sure it will,” said Walster, 74, whose grandfather first bought land in Maltby in 1916.

From his plot of irises, Walster has seen a lot of changes. For one, his family sold off 25 acres several years ago, and now 22 homes sit on that land.

“Used to be you’d wait one or two hours for a car to go by. Now it’s all congestion, and by 3 p.m. there’s a steady stream of cars from Highway 9 and the 522,” Walster said.

A new interchange at Highway 522 and Echo Lake is under construction; an additional interchange has been designed for Paradise Lake, but no funding has been allocated.

The question of taxes is difficult to answer, said Jim Doherty, a legal consultant with the Municipal Research and Services Center, which follows incorporation attempts. In areas that he’s seen incorporate, taxes have generally gone up, but there is a limit on how high they get. Also, cities with big tax bases, such as Bellevue, have much lower taxes than other incorporated cities.

A big tax base is what Stephens is counting on. He said Maltby’s potential for generating commercial taxes will allow it to incorporate without an increase in residential taxes. The area downtown is zoned for light and heavy industry, and would have a commercial base of 960 acres, or 1.5 square miles, devoted for businesses — several times the area of Woodinville’s downtown tax base, he said.

The downtown commercial area includes a Costco store that opened last week and is expected to generate an estimated $2 million a year in sales-tax revenue, which Stephens said would be a third of the proposed city’s budget. There are also three plant nurseries opening, and the new Snoqualmie Gourmet Ice Cream opened last week.

Meanwhile, the city could contract with existing fire and police services.

Its own identity

Aside from giving local residents a greater say on the public issues, incorporation also has an even more basic appeal, some residents say.

Becoming a city would give Maltby a higher profile and bring more people to a community she has grown to love, said resident Donna Schumacher, who runs a gift shop, Lady D’s Garden of Lavender, in the former Maltby schoolhouse.

“It would give us an identity. We don’t really have one now,” said Maltby Congregational Church Pastor Norm Erlendson. “I don’t feel like we’re Snohomish, even if it is our [mailing] address. We all feel like we are in Maltby. It would be nice to have our own identity, a community.”

The West Coast Railway brought people to Maltby in the late 1880s. The community got its name from real-estate developer John Maltby, who spearheaded growth by homesteading and dividing his land into parcels for sale. He brought potential buyers to the area on the newly constructed railway.

The community’s former name, Yew, sounded unappealing to rail passengers, so it was changed to Maltby in 1893, according to the League of Snohomish County Heritage Organizations.

Lisa Chiu: 425-745-7804 or lchiu@seattletimes.com