Do Schools Need Sewers?

Yes. So to curb rural growth, Dow Constantine’s keeping new schools off the pipes.

Three years ago, Issaquah's two local high schools were bursting at the seams. There wasn't enough space for science and art labs, says Janet Barry, who was then Issaquah's school superintendent. PE classes ran out of equipment. And then there was what Barry calls the "social problems" of having too many adolescents in too small a space. So in 2005 the district opened a new facility called Pacific Cascade and moved the district's freshmen there to relieve the pressure. But Pacific Cascade isn't inside Issaquah proper. It's across I-90, just outside Sammamish. The location puts the school a few feet beyond the "urban growth boundary," a line created by King County to concentrate development in or near cities and towns. And if King County Council member Dow Constantine (D-West Seattle) has his way, future Pacific Cascades won't be built. Constantine has proposed a new measure that would prohibit rural schools like Pacific Cascade from hooking up to urban sewer systems. His proposal is part of the council's new Comprehensive Plan, a document that sets development rules in the county every four years. Public hearings on the plan will begin later this month. Constantine's amendment wouldn't actually ban schools in the rural area. Septic systems would still be allowed. But opponents of the measure say that with septic systems, the size and location of new schools is determined by how much human waste they can handle—not the number of students living in the surrounding area. At an August meeting of the Citizens' Alliance for Property Rights, a largely rural political action committee dedicated to fighting land-use regulations, Republican councilmember Kathy Lambert of Redmond brought Constantine's proposal to the attention of the group. Her news was greeted with a round of jeers. Constantine, referred to by some participants as Chairman Dow, has a reputation for pushing an environmental agenda disliked by rural landowners. Lambert says Constantine's amendment is at odds with King County regulations, which explicitly allow schools to be built in rural areas. But rural residents are not united in opposing the measure. "Schools draw urban services, so they should be within the urban area," says May Valley resident Tom Carpenter. Carpenter doesn't want to see any schools built nearby, especially not the larger schools supported by sewers. When the facilities go in, he says, there's pressure on the county to allow additional development to provide services to the students and faculty, like more stores and wider roads. Carpenter adds that every time a school purchases land in a rural area, it means that much less space for rural pursuits like agriculture. "It's a death by a thousand pinpricks in the rural area," he says. Unincorporated King County is divided into area councils, which act as representatives of their regions to the county council. Carpenter is the president of the Four Creeks council, encompassing the area from the Issaquah Creek at the base of Tiger Mountain to his valley, just east of Renton. Like many of his neighbors, Carpenter has opposed previous land-use regulations by the county, but this one he supports. Terry Lavender agrees. Lavender, who lives in unincorporated Bear Creek, east of Redmond, says that once connections to sewers have been made in an area, if only to the school, developers will pressure the county to let them tap in. "It becomes harder to tell the next person they can't hook up to the sewer," she says. "There's a constant push to encroach on rural areas." But former superintendent Barry says people like Carpenter and Lavender have the wrong answer to the question: Which came first, the school or the development? Schools are built after a population appears, not before, she says. Most of the Issaquah district students live within urban areas. The problem is finding land inside the urban boundaries. Land within cities and towns is more expensive than in rural areas, she says. And getting the acreage necessary for a large middle or high school can mean condemning properties, creating "endless ill will between the community and the schools," she says. Size isn't the only problem with building on a septic system, says Issaquah District Capital Projects Director Steve Crawford. Pacific Cascade, for example, sits on soil that stops at a hard, shallow plate, making installation difficult. Crawford says that in the rare event of a system failure, the sewage wouldn't seep deep into the ground; it would hit the plate and run out the hillside into the local streams. The septic systems have to be pumped on a regular basis and the waste transported to a disposal site by truck. "You don't want to have a fender-bender with one," Barry observes with a laugh.

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