County Council postpones decision on Bothell zoning changes

Representatives wonder how to protect rural properties from sprawl without being unfair.

Snohomish County’s elected leaders say they want to avoid pitting far-flung neighborhoods against each other as they seek to help rural homeowners feeling pinched by sprawl in the North Creek area.

Council members have concerns about swapping zoning between rural Bothell-area properties and urban land on the fringes of Everett and Granite Falls.

“I do sympathize with the neighborhoods that have been inadvertently brought into this for the swap consideration,” Councilwoman Stephanie Wright said at a hearing earlier this month. “Personally I would not, as of today, be supporting any swap.”

Without one, it’s unclear how the council might pull off the balancing act.

To expand urban zoning in one area, county policies and state growth laws require a corresponding contraction somewhere else. The aim is to prevent unchecked sprawl. But the rules also created a quandary as the council tries to reshape the urban-growth boundary along 43rd Avenue SE, a line that some say makes little sense.

“They’re getting all the detriments of all of the growth around them,” County Councilman Terry Ryan said. “Detriments as in traffic and other issues and they don’t have the infrastructure out there.”

The council postponed until Dec. 6 a hearing on three zoning requests on the outskirts of Bothell and Mill Creek. Approval at this stage wouldn’t guarantee a zoning change; it would send the request for further study with a final decision in 2019.

Two controversial proposals involve a combined 281 acres of rural property along 43rd Avenue SE, where people are partially surrounded by newly built suburbs.

Homeowners there petitioned the county last year for the area to become urban. They hoped to find out this summer whether officials would recommend a closer look. Hearings have been rescheduled three times since June.

Many homeowners there hope to escape the newly built suburbs that partially surround them by selling their property to developers, presumably to build small-lot houses like the ones that are sprouting all around. Current zoning limits density to one house per five acres, with some exceptions.

“If we say we can’t do anything, that’s unfair to people on 43rd,” Ryan said.

Within four years, the county expects to start widening and extending 43rd Avenue. The road would become a continuous arterial for about a mile and a half, from 180th Street SE to Maltby Road. The project would remove a dead end at 188th Street and punch 43rd south from Jewell Road, through areas where there’s no current right of way. A portion of Sunset Road that connects with 43rd near 180th Street also figures into the project. More complete designs are expected early next year.

The Northshore School District also has submitted a zoning request to designate all of North Creek High School as urban. The campus is now split, with 31 acres rural. The district’s request has attracted no opposition.

Not so for the shift on 43rd Avenue. The strongest push-back has come from property owners on Lowell-Larimer Road in unincorporated Everett and from others who own land in another proposed swap area right outside Granite Falls city limits. They’ve been paying taxes on their land at higher, urban values. Many view the possibility of developing their land as a nest egg for retirement.

The County Council on Wednesday asked for guidance about potential policy changes from Snohomish County Tomorrow, a coalition of city, county and tribal governments that reviews planning issues.

“We’re trying to find something that is fair to everyone,” said Ryan, who predicted similar issues would come up in other neighborhoods. “We’re trying to find options.”

Ryan represents the 43rd Avenue area north of Jewell Road.

His colleague, Councilman Sam Low, represents the area from Jewell Road south, where he said he would oppose any zoning change. Low said that’s based on feedback from people who live in the area.

‘It’s a clear majority of people I’ve heard from,” he said.

A countywide zoning review is set for 2023, as part of the comprehensive plan update.

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