In several small cities in King County, 20-year plans have been rejected by the regional planning authority because the cities want to grow too much.
The drive from Redmond to Duvall passes through tranquil farmlands and woods, and along the gravel banks of the Snoqualmie River. The town itself, once an outpost of rural life, is now a flourishing bedroom community for tech and other workers on the Eastside. It’s grown 23 percent over the past decade, to 7,350 residents today.
And that’s the problem. Regional growth plans call for small cities in King County’s rural areas to take just 5 percent of the growth during the next 20 years, while large cities including Seattle, Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond absorb 73 percent.
That’s put Duvall and four other small cities in King County at odds with the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), the four-county planning authority whose policies seek to limit sprawl and reduce the carbon emissions associated with more highways and long commutes.
The council has told the cities they must revise the growth and employment forecasts in their comprehensive plans or risk losing a share of the $700 million in federal transportation funds the agency will administer over three years..
Leaders of the small cities — Duvall, Carnation, North Bend, Snoqualmie and Covington — say they, not a central planning agency, should determine how they expand within their own borders. And they say that without growth they can’t keep the lights on and the roads paved.
“We have a right to grow, a right to revenue to support our city,” said Snoqualmie Community Development Director Mark Hofman.
Much of the growth is driven by the demand for affordable housing. With the median Eastside home price now $760,000, buyers are turning to cities farther out from the urban centers where land is cheaper.
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The median price of a new home in Duvall was $550,000 in May. In Covington, it was $440,000, and the median of all sales in Covington was $332,000, according to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service.
“We can understand why these cities are frustrated,” said David Hoffman, with the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. “They have land to grow and they want to grow.”
He said the builders support the environmental goals of regional planning and the requirement that cities balance new jobs and housing so that more people can live where they work and avoid long commutes.
He noted that the cities aren’t asking to expand into rural lands, just within their own borders.
If growth restrictions on cities like Covington mean affordable homes are easier to find in Stanwood or Arlington, for example, people may be commuting much longer distances to jobs in Bellevue, Hoffman said.
Some of the small cities question whether the PSRC, which is made up of the region’s elected leaders, even has the legal right to manage growth within city borders.
“They are usurping our authority,” said Londi Lindell, city administrator for North Bend. “City councils are the legislative bodies authorized by the state to adopt local land-use regulations.”
The small cities also are frustrated by the PSRC’s refusal to make any distinctions among them other than population. North Bend and Snoqualmie are both along Interstate 90 and arguably can support more people than Duvall and Carnation, islands in rural areas along a two-lane state highway.
Covington is larger and less rural than any of the others. It’s connected to Kent on one side and Maple Valley on the other, and is served by two state highways.
“They’re taking a blanket approach to all the small cities,” said Richard Hart, Covington’s community-development director.
Covington is planning for a denser, more walkable downtown with six-story, mixed-use buildings that feature ground-floor retail and some affordable-housing units. But its Comprehensive Plan was rejected by the PSRC because it assumes almost three times as much growth in housing — 4,000 new units — as King County calls for in its targets, which Hart notes were set six years ago.
The demand for housing in Covington has been so great, he said, that just counting units currently permitted, the city will have reached 40 percent of its 20-year housing target within the first year.
“The pressure on us comes in every day from developers who want permits based on existing zoning,” Hart said. “We’re growing. They (PSRC) can say don’t grow, but we’re growing.”
Metropolitan King County Councilmembers Reagan Dunn and Kathy Lambert, who represent the rural areas, have called on the PSRC to reassess its decision not to fully certify the cities’ comprehensive plans. Dunn notes Covington’s combined population and jobs put it above the 22,500 threshold to move from a small-city designation to a large-city one, which would provide three times the growth allocation.
City growth targets are agreed upon after negotiations between the city and the county. Dunn urged the PSRC not to wait until 2021, the next scheduled update to the countywide targets, to reclassify Covington as a large city.
The PSRC’s executive director, Josh Brown, wrote to the small cities this month, saying the agency will convene a working group to address their issues and to make recommendations to the Growth Management Policy Board in 2017.
Under the state’s Growth Management Act, the PSRC has to certify that city and county comprehensive plans are consistent with the regional strategy adopted in 2008. Those strategies direct growth to urban centers that already have the roads, transit and infrastructure to support more density.
“If every city set its own growth targets, we’d end up on top of the mountains,” said Redmond City Councilmember Hank Margeson, who is vice chairman of the PSRC’s Growth Management Policy Board. He also said that relying on growth to balance city budgets is “ultimately not sustainable.”
Tim Trohimovich, director of planning and law for the conservation group Futurewise, said the region doesn’t have the money to pay for all the transportation projects needed to serve existing population centers. As small cities grow, he said, their residents put more pressure on government to improve traffic and build expensive new roads.
“We have to prioritize,” Trohimovich said. “If more people move to those outlying areas, how are they going to get from there to everywhere else?”
At the edge of Duvall, the city has approved plans for a 99-unit housing development on a former 34-acre farm. The project will feature higher-density, two- and three-story fourplexes, with trails and open space set aside for the public.
Mayor Will Ibershof said Duvall, like the other small cities, is following many of the regional planning goals, including creating a mix of housing types and affordability, creating a town center with higher-density uses, and requiring developers to protect environmentally sensitive areas.
He said the city’s comprehensive plan, with its 20-year projections, was developed after two years of work, a cost of $200,000 and significant public input about how residents wanted the city to grow. Duvall projected almost 1,300 new housing units. The county target calls for 930, according to the city.
The PSRC wants the city to revise its plan.
“My City Council thinks this is big government exceeding its bounds,” Ibershof said. “For us, it goes back to wanting to control our own community, our quality of life.”
Information in this article, originally published June 21, 2016, was corrected June 22, 2016. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the Puget Sound Regional Council annually administers $700 million in federal transportation funds. That amount would be administered over three years.