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 Reporter Dan Catchpole contributed to this report. Comment at

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2 Responses to “Issaquah school officials fight proposed county ban on rural campuses”

  1. Carrie on August 4th, 2011 5:33 pm

    Rural property, zoned Rural Area 5 (RA5), one dwelling unit per 5 acres? This is no place for one or two schools. Schools become the hub of a community, they attract development, dense housing, and other pressures on zoning restrictions.

    I encourage everyone (including ISD) to go learn more about the GMA. The GMA seeks to control uncoordinated and unplanned growth — uncontrolled growth posed a threat to the environment, sustainable economic development, and the health, safety, and high quality of life enjoyed by residents of Washington State.

    Putting a school in a rural area creates an incentive for development, covering open space and farm land and clogging rural roads with traffic. There also is no ability to hook up sewer, since it does not exist in the area, forcing more development of the rural areas.

    Grandfathering should NOT be allowed – these properties are worth more now than ISD paid for them, so all the money will be able to be recuperated. And the ISD was fully aware of the GMA and what it means for development in the rural areas, outside of incorporated cities.

    The ISD Board threatened condemnation or the exercise of eminent domain for the purchase of the Winterbrook Farm (see meeting minutes:

    The School Board can always threaten condemnation of parcels in the urban areas in and around Issaquah.

  2. Tom on August 4th, 2011 9:40 pm

    Very good summary.

    One thing folk can do right now to prevent urban-serving schools from being placed in rural King County is provide comment to what are called the “County-wide Planning Policies (CPP). I think the meeting of the Growth Management Planning Council (GMPC), the authority over the CPP, is meeting on 9/21/11 to vote on changes.

    Included in the new policies are the restrictions the school district erroneously calls a ban on schools in the rural area. Our efforts haven’t been against schools in the rural area; its been using the rural area as a land bank for urban-serving schools.

    Among the particular concerns over the permanent impacts the schools have locally, is the use of “tight line” sewer connections from the school to the urban area. (Tight line sewer is a direct line from the school dedicated, at least at the start, to the school).

    The WA State Supreme Court has ruled that these are in violation of the intent of the Growth Management Act’s vision for rural areas. The Act allows them only for special circumstances like safety and health (neither of which apply for school connections).

    The county action is to remove the exemption schools currently enjoy.

    The schools districts and the Suburban Cities Association have put up a big lobby to fight this. We will be at the 9/21/11 hearing to rebut.

    Public comment to the GMPC regarding the current updates to the CPP is very relevant right now.

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