Some years ago, I lived in a residential community east of Woodinville. It’s a typical late 1970s subdivision with houses on acre-lots surrounded by tall trees; the kind of place where deer graze in the yard by day and bears sometimes visit by night. After the Growth Management Act was adopted in 1990, the neighborhood was miles outside the King County Urban Growth Boundary. Zoning was amended to RA-5, effectively freezing pre-GMA development in place with five-acre minimum lots.
The neighborhood backs onto Paradise Lake Road, a winding rural road into Snohomish County. It was startling, therefore, to learn last week of a large apartment development on 17 acres of farmland alongside that road. The project comprises fifteen three-story apartment buildings with 360 apartments. Other than a church and middle school across the road, it’s a low density rural area with older homes on large lots.
The rural area, it turns out, is bisected by the Maltby Urban Growth Area (UGA). It’s a long sliver of “urban” area along SR 522, mostly light industrial uses on the north side of the highway as it snakes up the hill from Woodinville toward Monroe. Five miles beyond Woodinville, the UGA was extended in 2005 for a church construction on Paradise Lake Rd. A neighboring landowner asked to be included in the urban area. For obscure reasons, the Snohomish County council agreed and rezoned the farm as Planned Community Business (PCB).
The zoning also allows multifamily. Hence the peculiar sight of fifteen three-story apartment buildings in a pocket of UGA surrounded on three sides by R-5 zoning, the 5-acre minimum lots that are designed to prevent development into the rural areas.
It is denser than many new developments in exurban Snohomish County, and will provide more homes than a comparably sized single family subdivision. More affordable too; though many residents will face long commutes, rents are about half the level of core urban markets. But it’s a textbook example of density in the wrong place. The only businesses are a pair of gas stations at the highway intersection, so every errand will involve driving. Roads lack lighting and sidewalks. The 720 parking spots required reflect a realistic estimate of the mode share and traffic impacts. The only bus in the area is the twice daily CT 424 which passes, without stopping, on SR 522.
What’s happened on Paradise Lake Road is an extreme instance of the development pressures along the edge of the UGA in Snohomish County. Around North Creek and other unincorporated communities around Bothell and Mill Creek, single family home development is booming. Land use is so inefficient that developers estimate they will soon run out of land within the UGA. Proposals are being floated to extend the UGA between Bothell and Mill Creek two miles east as far as SR 9 Woodinville-Snohomish Road.
Development on the rural edge generates severe traffic congestion, but is too sparse to support a significant transit share. Snohomish County’s Comprehensive Plan classifies Paradise Lake Rd and two dozen other rural arterials at “urban traffic levels”. LOS standards should act as a brake, preventing growth from running ahead of transportation capacity. In Snohomish County, low LOS standards permit low-intensity development to sprawl for miles into recently rural areas.
At two well-attended meetings this week, neighbors expressed frustration. Having been caught unawares of the 2005 rezone, their hopes may now depend on traffic issues. Paradise Lake Rd is the last signal-controlled intersection on SR 522 between I-405 and Monroe. A $100 million flyover is planned, but funded only for design (and only after 2025). Though local traffic congestion is severe, it does not yet appear to put the area in arrears under the LOS standard. The developer anticipates breaking ground in late 2017.