Sky Valley creeps up on you almost imperceptibly. Heading east along Highway 2 from Everett, you notice the landscape start to change. Diners pop up between...

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Sky Valley creeps up on you almost imperceptibly. Heading east along Highway 2 from Everett, you notice the landscape start to change.

Diners pop up between the strip malls, and then instead of them. Gas stations become more scarce. Cities shrink to towns to scattered houses. And then it happens: You’re in the country, with fields on either side dotted with wild sweet peas, a slow river meandering next to the road, and mountains growing out of the river valley.

If you’re paying attention to the street signage, you might notice about 40 minutes into the trip a pine-green sign that says “Entering King County.” Most people don’t pay attention. They think they’re still in Snohomish County. Indeed, some say, they might as well be.

The county line, it seems, is just an abstraction. The road followed the railroad, which followed the river, which followed the terrain.

The border separating Snohomish and King counties was created long before the road was built, and long before man had made much of an imprint on the Puget Sound region. Carved out of Island County on Jan. 14, 1861, Snohomish County was the first in Washington to be outlined using the survey system instead of natural boundaries, according to a University of Washington dissertation published in 1927.

At the time, it didn’t matter much, because there wasn’t much there.

Fast-forward 146 years and that line has an impact — on the people who live in Skykomish, Baring and Grotto, communities along a stretch of Highway 2 that dips south into King County.

All it would take to simplify things for many of them would be to redraw the line below Highway 2. Drop the border five miles in that area. That would let residents drive to Everett instead of Seattle to conduct county business. It also would lower the cost of providing services by saving county employees time and gas.

Sims open to a switch

King County Executive Ron Sims, who would have to OK a possible border change before it went to the state Legislature for approval, isn’t sure why people in those communities would want to switch.

“It is an interesting and unique community that wants to be in King County for the level of services that we provide,” Sims explains. “We have our staff setting up a chamber of commerce for them, at their request. We’ve invested in their school, their playground, a community center.”

But Sims says he wouldn’t stand in the way if residents want to switch.

“If they want to leave, I would say fine,” Sims says. The challenge, he says, would be convincing Snohomish County to accept the region. “I don’t think they’d want it.”

Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon says that if the residents of the area wanted to pursue having the county line moved, the county would consider it.

“If a boundary-change proposal is brought to us, we will conduct a full cost-benefit analysis to ensure it is the best option for the county and for these communities,” Reardon said.

But revenue from timber harvesting is at stake. Sims says that while King County wouldn’t stand in the way if residents want to switch counties, they wouldn’t be able to take any trees with them.

“We control the forest around Skykomish,” he says. “They would be a pimple addition to Snohomish County because we wouldn’t allow the forest to be moved with them.”

“Absolutely no sense”

People who live in that corridor go to the doctor and movies in Snohomish County. They work and shop in Snohomish County.

When they call King County offices, residents say they often are redirected to Snohomish County.

They receive the Snohomish County phone book.

“Pretty much everything we do is in Snohomish County,” says Steve Westover. “It makes absolutely no sense that we are in King County.”

The only way in or out of the area is Highway 2, a mostly two-lane road that runs from Everett almost all the way to Massachusetts. Most of Highway 2 in Western Washington runs through Snohomish County, but for a 21-mile stretch it dips into King County.

That means traveling between Skykomish and any other part of King requires a 40-mile detour each way through Snohomish County.

Call it a cartographic anomaly, the kind of detail that would make people living anywhere else in the world go “hmm” and then start making dinner plans or wondering about where to get an organic facial.

But for some residents of the area, this anomaly means one thing: “It sucks.” Those are the words of Kim Bird, who has lived half of her life in Skykomish.

If King County seems far away to people living in these communities, the distance seems even greater when viewed from Seattle. Asking a King County employee about statistics for the Highway 2 corridor doesn’t yield much.

“We don’t track service provision to that level of smallness of geographical area,” says Elissa Benson, an analyst with the Office of Management and Budget.

The ultimate insult, residents say, is that they’ve been left off King County maps. More than once.

Different outlook

“A lot of us that live up here have a different outlook on life. We deal with not having all the services. You just change your life. It’s a choice. Life is choices,” says Westover, who owns the store in Baring. “We make the choice to live up here knowing that we’re not going to have the services and things of that nature that people who live down below have.”

“We’re kind of a forgotten little hole,” Westover says as he rings people up during the lunchtime rush.

King County sheriff’s deputies, which contract with Skykomish and cover the entire Highway 2 corridor in King County, respond to 911 calls within two minutes — or the next day, residents say. Animal control, a county service, is nonexistent here.

“I don’t know what we’d do if we had a rabid dog come down the street. I suppose we’d just have to shoot him,” says Charlotte Mackner, mayor of Skykomish. “Their excuse is, ‘Too far away.’ Everything we ask for: ‘You’re too far away.’ “

Tight-knit town

In a small town like Skykomish, population 210, there is no violent crime. No red-light cameras. No red lights. There are fewer “Bellevue types,” Bird says, and they’re only in town on weekends. And with a high-school graduating class that usually numbers around a half-dozen, everyone knows everyone. Everyone relies on everyone.

A few days later, Bird mentions that a neighbor’s mother died.

“Everybody was there at a blink of an eye. In the city, your neighbor could die and you wouldn’t know. You wouldn’t even know their name. Here, you know,” she says. “Here, everybody cares.”

Locals have their own term for the land below the mountains: “Down below.” As in, “I’m heading down below. Can I pick you up some groceries?”

People who live down below are called “flatlanders,” and flatlanders who drive through town at 15 mph and stare are called “gapers.”

Without gaping, it would take about five minutes to drive through this 1-square-mile town following the posted speed limits.

A tour with Mackner lasts an hour, since she pauses at every landmark — the restaurant, the bar, the school, her house, a teacher’s house. Then she takes a detour to the ballpark and the emergency airport, two large fields off Highway 2.

“Looks like it needs to be mowed,” she says of the airport “runway,” before she turns the car around and heads back.

Skykomish was built for trains and timber. Until a few decades ago, the town subsisted on mining, logging and the railroad. Those industries shut down one by one, and unemployment settled in.

Now, there’s little logging, and while trains still rumble through town, the last time one stopped was 1971.

“When I was a kid, we always had the train stop here. It brought our mail, twice a day. Once east, once west. But they don’t do that anymore,” says Mackner. “Now they just go by. A lot of freight trains. And you’ll see a lot of passenger trains go by, on their way to Seattle.”

Today there are 60 jobs in the town, compared to 1.1 million in the entire county, according to demographer Chandler Felt. The BNSF Railway is cleaning up the oil that seeped into the soil and groundwater for decades, and that has resulted in some jobs and business for local retailers.

But residents in the Sky Valley corridor are older, poorer and whiter than in the rest of King County. They earn about $10,000 less per year than their urban counterparts, and the median home value in 2005 was $142,100, compared with $339,686 then in the rest of the county, according to research compiled by North of the border, in Snohomish County, the median home value was $281,757.

Isolated from services

Every Wednesday, a community van runs to Sultan, in Snohomish County, so the seniors get in their weekly grocery shopping. However, the Metro Transit bus line ends at Duvall, south of Monroe, making it impractical to get anywhere else without a car.

Even with a car, it’s not easy to stay connected. Heading to court? Plan on getting up at 4 a.m., and give yourself three hours for traffic, to make an 8 a.m. appointment.

Need a building permit for a new porch? It’s 77 miles to the Department of Development and Environmental Services in Renton. (Skykomish lets its residents file for building permits at the town hall. Those living outside the town limits must go to the central office.)

Residential building permits in Snohomish County are cheaper. For a 2,000-square-foot home valued at $142,345, the cost would be $1,234.55. The same size home in King County, valued at $195,735, would cost $3,585, according to the counties’ Web sites.

Last proposal shelved

Moving the county line was discussed several decades ago but quickly tabled when Snohomish County refused because the area was an environmental liability, says Kathy Lambert, who represents the area on the King County Council.

Mackner says no one has brought it up since she became mayor in 2001.

“When you get down to nitty-gritty, I’ve never heard anybody say, ‘Let’s get out of King County,’ ” Mackner says. “It’s the way it’s always been.”

Some don’t see a problem.

“I actually like being part of King County,” says Henry Sladek, owner of the Cascadia Inn. “I mean, this town being part of a county that people wouldn’t logically recognize. It’s kind of cool being the unique ones.”

And there are advantages, for those who know how to work them.

Mackner was called to jury duty a few years ago.

“I said to the lady, ‘I would like to be excused ’cause I’m a mayor and I only have a staff of one.’ She said OK. Two minutes later, she called me back and said the mayor [of Seattle] came.”

Replied Mackner: ” ‘Did he have to drive 75 miles to get there?’ They excused me.”