THE COUNTY RECEIVED ANOTHER vote of no confidence on its growth policies this month. As the Eastside Journal first reported, the Issaquah City Council voted to set aside $50,000 to bankroll its own battle against the county's approval of new housing developments. The unincorporated land surrounding Issaquah has been flooded with new development, sending a rush of cars onto the suburban city's streets. Concerned at the apparently lax traffic standards the county applies, Issaquah decided it would pay to fight some of these decisions in court. "We're not looking to be adversarial in this situation," says Issaquah planning director Mark Hinthorne. "But we need to protect the interests of our community." Planners in Renton and Redmond say they have also been watching the county's moves warily, though neither city has set up a special legal offense fund.
The Issaquah action follows a major challenge to the county's approval of the Sammamish Plateau's Greens at Beaver Crest. Testimony before a county hearing examiner on the Greens case has raised serious questions about the county's growth-management methods, including the computer model used by the county transportation department to forecast traffic.
King County Executive Ron Sims has been navigating the conflicting demands with his usual centrist skill—trying not to get in the way of development while working toward remedying the county's weak and somewhat discredited growth-management methods. He recently called for an independent panel of experts to examine the county's traffic model. Last week he announced plans to accelerate two road projects that are critical to relieving suburban congestion. And he has proposed tightening some of the county's growth codes. Last week, the King County Council heard testimony on Sims' proposal.
The executive's moves will never satisfy slow-growth supporters. Yet Sims is faced with a clear need for more housing in King County and the Growth Management Act dictum to preserve rural areas by driving dense development into "urban" zones.
THE GREENS CASE has helped reveal the toothless nature of the traffic standards put in place by the King County Council. These standards form what's called the "concurrency test," which is supposed to ensure that the transportation system and new development grow in tandem. But under the county concurrency test, even if a road is forecast to be loaded with far more cars than it can handle, housing projects feeding that road can still get approval so long as no single development will be sending more than 30 percent of its car trips onto that road, in the same direction, in the same hour—an unlikely scenario. This rule has created a situation in which there is effectively no ceiling on the congestion allowed. In the Greens case, the county's own forecast showed SR-202 getting clogged to 100 percent over its car-carrying capacity—yet the development was still approved.
Sims' proposal would toughen that standard, applying the 30 percent rule to a group of roads collectively rather than an individual road, and increasing the number of roads included in the test. The executive's staff says that this and other rule changes will result in a significant increase in the number of unincorporated areas that are "out of compliance" with the county's transportation standards—meaning they cannot see any new development until more road capacity is funded.
Still, at the hearing before the council last week, developers did not oppose the measure. That may be because another feature of the bill snuffs out a major threat to developers that arose earlier this year.
That case involved a large development, McGarvey Park, in the Petrovitsky area east of Kent. Hearing Examiner Stafford Smith, who is also deciding the Greens appeal, approved the project in January. But he was highly critical of the county's traffic standards, calling them "far too generous," and adding, "The pace of development has far exceeded planning projections and no effective mechanism exists to abate its progress."
In the case of McGarvey Park, Smith noted that the project would drive huge amounts of traffic into some intersections that are notoriously overloaded even today. The developer's attorney argued that since these intersections included state roads, not just county roads, the county's traffic standards did not apply. But Smith ruled that when evaluating projects proposed for unincorporated county land, the county can and should apply its traffic standards to all roads and intersections significantly affected by the project.
Though Smith approved McGarvey Park, his legal finding alarmed housing developers. Smith, it seemed, was prepared to deny building permits in King County based on the congestion at intersections over which King County has no control. Such booming unincorporated areas as Soos Creek and East Lake Sammamish—which have been some of the hottest sites for home building in recent years—were especially at risk. They are bisected by some critical, and overburdened, state routes that the state Department of Transportation appears to have neither the money nor the inclination to improve.
Earlier this year, prominent land-use attorney Robert Johns sent e-mail to Ethan Raup, Sims' public policy chief, about what he called "the McGarvey Park problem." (The e-mail was among documents received through the discovery process by some Eastside slow-growth activists.) The situation on the Sammamish Plateau, he wrote, "is even worse than at McGarvey Park." Much of the Plateau traffic feeds into a critical intersection in Redmond, where East Sammamish Parkway meets SR-202. That intersection is already more congested than county standards are supposed to allow, Johns noted, but "neither Redmond nor [the state] DOT plans to do anything about it because, in their opinion, there is no feasible way to solve the problem at a reasonable cost, and as a major urban intersection, [it] functions in a tolerable manner."
Johns continued: "The net effect of the Smith rule is that a city can totally roadblock the County's efforts to build urban density housing in the UGA [urban growth area] by refusing to upgrade city intersections. I would love to see someone figure out where the county is going to put its share of the GMA-mandated growth if we can't build on the East Sammamish or Soos Creek Plateaus. . . . We need to get moving on this concurrency task force ASAP." (Twelve minutes later, Raup forwarded the message to the county's transportation department, saying: "We need to discuss this ASAP.")
Without mentioning the McGarvey Park ruling, Sims' bill specifically takes aim at it. The ordinance reads: "Intersections and roadway links located within cities or adjacent counties shall not be included" in the county's concurrency test. They can be part of the overall averaging of local congestion (one part of concurrency), but not for the more critical test of individual roads and intersections.
Raup say that this language was included because the county Department of Transportation wanted it, not to satisfy Johns. And he emphasized that it does not actually represent a change in county policy.
SIMS' STRATEGY OF taking with one hand while giving with the other is certainly politically astute and is probably in the best spirit of growth management. Like it or not, the Sammamish Plateau and similar unincorporated areas have been deemed "urban" by the policymakers and Sims himself says, "The goal here is not to stop or even slow growth in urban areas." Making Plateau drivers wait another 30 seconds at an existing intersection presumably saves the government from laying new asphalt farther out into the rural zones.
But the extent and rate of change is the question raised by the Greens and McGarvey Park. At what point does concentration of housing become a drive to green-light development no matter what the cost?