Issaquah school officials fight proposed county ban on rural campuses
August 2, 2011
By Tom Corrigan
Local school officials worry an 80-acre plot bought for $3.3 million in 2006 will become largely worthless to the district if King County officials move forward with a proposed ban on new school buildings in rural areas.
Known as the Winterbrook Farm site, the undeveloped land sits at 21207 S.E. May Valley Road, outside the city’s designated urban growth area.
At the time the school board approved the property purchase, school officials indicated the farmland could become home to an elementary and middle school. The idea was to alleviate foreseeable crowding in the attendance area of Liberty High School. Still, the board did not anticipate a need for new schools feeding into Liberty prior to at least 2014.
The King County proposal would all but close an existing loophole that allows schools to be built on rural lands. The change is meant to bring the county’s growth management plan in line with state and regional growth regulations as required by the state’s Growth Management Act. The intent is to fight urban sprawl. But proposal opponents say not allowing schools in rural areas is unnecessary to eliminate sprawl and will end up costing school districts — and taxpayers — money.
Issaquah School District spokeswoman Sara Niegowski said local schools already operate four buildings in rural areas. As an example of how the King County proposal would cost the district money, Niegowski pointed to the construction of Pacific Cascade Middle School.
Built in 2006, Pacific Cascade was the last Issaquah district school to go up in a rural area. The district paid $3.7 million in 2003 for the property on which Cascade now sits, Niegowski said. An urban site studied by the district carried a price tag of $15.6 million. The price difference is clearly substantial, Niegowski said, further noting that even though Pacific Cascade technically sits in a rural area, it is across the street from hundreds of homes.
While district officials don’t want to lose the Winterbrook property, they also don’t want the county to force them into buying a potentially expensive urban replacement for the rural land, Niegowski added. And increased property costs might be only one of the problems local leaders face if the county moves forward with its proposal. In urban areas, Niegowski said undeveloped plots large enough for a school are becoming hard to find.
“Overall, this is a big deal for us,” she said, regarding King County’s proposal.
Among area school leaders, those in Issaquah are not alone in opposing the rural school ban. All in all, 15 properties held by seven school districts could be affected. Those properties are valued at $12 million. Districts are promoting an amendment to the county plan, one that would grandfather-in rural properties districts already own.
“Unless we can get some movement on this,” said Snoqualmie Valley schools Superintendent Joel Aune, “it appears it’s going to have a negative impact on our district.”
King County leaders were slated to vote on the rural school issue at their June 29 meeting, but they delayed the vote until September in order to consider various amendments.
“We’re trying to balance multiple policy objectives,” including conservation and education, said Lauren Smith, one of King County Executive Dow Constantine’s top land-use advisers.
While King County’s policies are supposed to match up with state and federal regulations, they had not been updated since the 1990s. Now is the time to close loopholes that encourage new development in rural areas, according to anti-urban sprawl advocates.
“The existing countywide planning policies … have been a problem for years,” said Tim Trohimovich, co-director of planning and law for Futurewise, a Seattle-based conservation group.
Trohimovich pointed to two proposed developments that include placing schools in rural areas to serve urban populations as an example of how the existing policy permits sprawl.
Schools also attract residents, he said.
“That is why real estate agents tout new schools in the area in which they are trying to sell a house,” Trohimovich said. “So, people move into the rural area to be near the new school.”
Tom Corrigan: 392-6434, ext. 241, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Reporter Dan Catchpole contributed to this report. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.