Out in the wilds of the Growth Management frontier, the natives are restless. Residents of this booming region east of Lake Sammamish, many of whom are fed up with what they view as out-of-control growth policies from King County, recently voted to take hold of their own fate and become Puget Sound's newest city, christening themselves Sammamish. And on April 27, they will elect their first city council.
The small-town campaign has been marked by a level of vitriol worthy of any big-city battle. It has also attracted significant interest from environmental activist groups who think the outcome could have a major effect on the future of regional growth.
Still heavily forested, but with its few rural roads thoroughly traffic-choked, this 95% white, highly affluent, and mostly Republican suburb has been a viper's nest of infighting and conspiracy-mongering. Though the council election is nonpartisan, the 14 candidates for the seven positions have more or less separated themselves into opposing slates.
On one side is a vociferously slow-growth citizens' organization called SHOUT (or Sammamish Homeowners/Renters United Together), with whom several of the candidates are affiliated. SHOUT has been actively agitating against county policies and promoting Sammamish independence for several years.
On the other side is a more loosely allied group of candidates that generally takes a moderate approach to restraining growth and which dislikes SHOUT's confrontational tone. They are trying to make SHOUT's bloc-like behavior work against them: Signs along the main Sammamish thoroughfare, 228th Avenue SE, urge drivers to vote "independently."
Opponents of SHOUT accuse the tax- exempt group of illegally engaging in political activity. SHOUT members, in turn, charge the other side with sandbagging their candidates at a recent debate (for instance, failing to notify them that they should come prepared with an opening statement). SHOUT opponents say the group is a cabal operating at the direction of King County Council member Brian Derdowski. The SHOUT team paints their opponents as secret shills for developers.
"This is about as dirty, bare-knuckled, and fraught with fraud and misrepresentation as any campaign I've ever seen," complains Phil Dyer, a former three-term representative in the state house, who is running against SHOUT member Di Irons for Position 1. "You should debate policy, not people's motives."
The council race is of particular interest to those concerned about growth management because the borders of this new city run right along the county's "urban growth boundary." This artificial line runs north-south from Redmond to Issaquah, and serves as King County's main tool for limiting sprawl: Development is supposed to be concentrated inside the line, preserving the rural lands beyond.
Housing developers already chafe at the line, which they think artificially suppresses housing supply and drives up prices. In the years ahead, there is likely to be mounting political pressure to push the line further east. Phil Dyer, for one, expresses dissatisfaction with the urban growth boundary, which he blames for "increased housing prices and decreased quality of life. Ten years from now, I don't think [the line] will be in the same place."
That's why the Sammamish race has attracted Washington Conservation Voters, one of the state's biggest environmental electoral groups, which is supporting the SHOUT-affiliated slate. Says field director Sarah Jayne: "In 10 years, when people are saying, 'Let's push back the urban-rural line,' we want our people on that city council who are saying, 'No, this is the line and it's not going anywhere.'"
However, the urban growth boundary has been nothing if not a double-edged sword for residents of Sammamish. When the line was laid down by the county in 1994, the Sammamish area found itself on the "urban" side. Since then, beautiful scenery, buildable land, proximity to Microsoft, and permissive county policies have all conspired to deliver hundreds of new housing units to the area—over 1,300 last year alone. And county planners have already given the go-ahead for some 12,000 more. Yet nobody believes that the overburdened Sammamish roads are equipped to handle this load.
"We have been the local whipping boy for the county's growth management abuses," says Leslie Kralicek, a SHOUT member who is running for Position 4 on the council. Kralicek and others on the SHOUT side are calling for an immediate moratorium on building permits as soon as the new city is established in August. She believes that the county fraudulently approved new housing developments by underestimating their traffic impact, and she wants to go through the housing pipeline "and do a thorough assessment of what's there legitimately and what isn't." Meanwhile, she says, "we have to bring the road network up to an urban standard."
Kralicek's opponent, Kathy Huckabay, thinks it's a waste of time and money to try to stop new homes that the county has already approved. "We clearly can't do anything about those 12,000 coming in. We can't say, 'You have to go away.' We should welcome those people into our community." Huckabay contends that the SHOUT tendency to demonize developers will only impair the city's ability to work with these homebuilders to improve what's on the way.
Phil Dyer maintains that "the responsibilities of governing are beyond what these SHOUT people contemplate. We've got an extremely limited budget and a huge amount of demand. Should we spend $3 million of our $13 million [tax base] on litigation?"
But Kralicek angrily objects. "So we should just go ahead and endanger the health, safety, and welfare of the community by allowing this development, and incur the huge amount of debt that will be required to provide services to that huge population? That's all prudent?"
It is perhaps a little ironic that an environmental advocacy group like Washington Conservation Voters should ally itself with a slate of candidates whose two main objectives are to halt new development and build more roads. After all, green groups typically seek to impose more "dense" development on the suburbs—so as to preserve open space in the rural zone and encourage use of public transit—and generally oppose any transportation spending that isn't a bike path.
But Maryanne Tagney Jones of WCV, who has been interviewing and doorbelling with the Sammamish candidates, notes that the Sammamish area still "contains a lot of environmentally fragile land. It's full of lakes, wetlands, erodable soil. Places like Bellevue are all built out. This is a city that is [still] building and these are the people who are going to oversee it. It's going to set the tone for the city for years to come."
At a WCV-sponsored wine-and-cheese fund-raiser last week, Tagney Jones and her candidates drummed up more than $3,000 in two hours. "That's pretty good for a little suburban race," she says.
Remarkably, there has been no sign of similar activity on the part of developers, whose livelihood appears to be at some risk in Sammamish. Sam Anderson, executive director of the Master Builders of King County, says, "We aren't getting involved in those elections. We're not making endorsements or anything." The homebuilders did try to fight the city's incorporation last November but lost that election, and Steve Excell, a political consultant who worked with the builders last time, says the industry simply views this race as a lost cause no matter who wins.
Tagney Jones is not resting easy however. "I assume they're backing people the same as we're backing people," she says. "I've not seen any evidence of that, but I wouldn't want to assume that that interest is not being represented. That would be very foolish." In Sammamish, it seems, only the paranoid survive.