Mostly rural Skagit County — with a population density about half of Whatcom County to the north and one-sixth of Snohomish County to the south — has a big-county problem: housing.
Peter Gill, long-range planning manager for Skagit County, said the county has a vacancy rate of less than 1%. Because of this shortage and continued population growth, the county is exploring amending its comprehensive plan to allow for “fully contained communities,” or FCCs.
An FCC, Gill said, is “an urban community, newly created outside of an existing urban growth area.” They have mixed land uses of business and residential, and are new villages that may be incorporated as cities. Designating FCCs is an option for counties under the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA). King County no longer allows FCCs. [Editor’s note: Correcting original misstatement re FCC permitting in King County; Nov. 22, 2021]
To designate an FCC, Skagit County’s comprehensive plan would need to be amended during its annual review process. An amendment submitted by Skagit Partners LLC on July 31, 2019, proposed, among other changes, adding the sentence, “Urban growth may also be allowed outside of cities and towns in areas designated a fully contained community as defined by RCW 36.70A.350.”
Despite the proposed amendment drawing widespread public controversy, the Skagit County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously on May 11 to place the proposal on the docket of the Planning Commission for review.
This does not mean the proposal has been, or will be, approved.
Gill informed the county commissioners on Nov. 8 that Skagit Partners will fund a study next year on a hypothetical FCC in the county to evaluate potential impacts and involve the community in this process.
Community disapproval of FCCs
The concept of an FCC has become a lightning rod for the issues of housing and growth in the county. The county solicited public comments on the proposed amendment this spring and many respondents expressed their opposition to this type of development.
Margery Hite, who said she has lived in the county since 1993, said her concerns about the FCC come as a retired lawyer, who once sat on the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board. She is concerned about changing the comprehensive plan to allow for FCCs.
“This is a big reversal,” Hite said.
The Skagit County Drainage and Irrigation Districts Consortium, in a letter to the county commissioners, expressed their concern with changing the comprehensive plan to allow for FCCs because of the impacts of urban development and that the drainage infrastructure cannot handle increased runoff. The consortium also expressed concern about the impact on agricultural land and asked the county to reject the proposal unless there was a more comprehensive analysis.
Many opposed to FCCs said they don’t think FCCs address the lack of housing and could encourage further growth from outside the county.
Hite doesn’t think an FCC will house those already living in the county or address the problem of affordable housing in a way that makes sense. She expects that developers will build “market-rate housing” at high prices, partially to pay for the infrastructure that will have to be developed within the FCC.
“People with much higher wages can afford to move in; people who live here cannot,” Hite said.
So what might an FCC in Skagit look like?
In King County, Bear Creek was designated for urban development in 1989, per the county’s current comprehensive plan.
The development, which has both an urban planned development permit and an FCC permit, is comprised of three parts: Redmond Ridge, the Trilogy at Redmond Ridge and Redmond Ridge East.
Bear Creek has seen significant infrastructure improvements since its conception, including sanitary sewer and water systems, stormwater facilities, roads and other utilities, and a park and open space system linked by trails. The plan lays out how to address such concerns as mitigating traffic and requiring 25% open space while also preserving wetlands.
King County’s comprehensive plan sets out requirements for the development including a housing target of 910 new units between 2006 and 2031. The plan estimates population of the area at 9,000 in 2014, with an estimated 3,540 housing units in 2010. Also noted in the plan is that the county has granted approval for 2,100 dwelling units within Redmond Ridge and Trilogy and that 1,600 of them have been built.
King County requires that affordable housing be provided in Bear Creek for a range of income levels, including “levels below and near the median income for King County.”
Redmond Ridge provides affordable housing options with qualifications such as a four-person household having a maximum yearly income before taxes of $71,640. Rental of a three-bedroom, two-bathroom unit begins at $1,780, according to their website.
The costs of growth — and where it should go
One of the reasons Skagit County is considering the development of an FCC, Gill said, is that the county is not hitting its 80/20 urban/rural population growth objective. Over the past four years the county has seen 27% of the growth happening in rural areas. The idea behind FCC development would be to increase growth in urban areas, as an FCC development would be considered a new urban growth area.
Whatcom County planning director Mark Personius, who previously worked for Skagit County and wrote a brief on FCCs, said the county needs to consider size, scale and intensity when studying whether this kind of development would be good for the county.
“How does it fit with the existing infrastructure? And how does it impact adjacent resource lands in the rural areas, existing neighborhoods out there?” Personius questioned. He noted that because the development is supposed to be fully contained, all costs of infrastructure and urban services would need to be borne by developers or by future residents of the development.
The expense of this, particularly in an area where rural roads may need to be improved and services added, can be huge and conflict with attempts to create affordable housing.
Hite is glad the county will be engaging in the study, and hopes they will first look at the issues of drainage and transportation. Ultimately, she also hopes they’ll be looking at alternatives to FCCs.
“I think that the real push here is the housing issue,” Hite said. She would like to see more housing built in cities and towns incrementally, unlike how an FCC would develop housing quickly.
She thinks options such as allowing for accessory dwelling units — ADUs — should be explored. An ADU is a smaller, independent residential dwelling unit located on the same lot as a stand-alone, or detached, single-family home. This is something that the county’s zoning administrator, Brandon Black, said the Skagit County does allow for.
Hite also suggested duplexes and triplexes be built in single-family zoning. Gill said new multifamily units are generally not allowed to be built in the county.
Another housing alternative for home ownership is the community land trust, where homes sit on land owned by the trust. The price of the home is less as the owner is paying only for the home and leasing the land from the trust. When the home is sold, the price is restricted to keep it affordable for the next buyer.
As next steps, the county will move ahead over the next year with the study and consider what policies could be added to the comprehensive plan that would allow for an FCC. During the briefing on Nov. 8, Gill said it is too early to say whether an FCC would be a good idea or not for Skagit County, and that the study will likely include alternatives to FCCs.
Skagit Partners LLC chose not to comment for this article.
— Reported by Lauren Gallup
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