King County Planners Reject Urban Growth Area Expansion Proposals


Cities and counties throughout the region have been pushing to complete their comprehensive plan updates for the 2035 plan period, a 20-year planning horizon. Typically, a major plan update happens every eight years1, but King County is unique in that a major update happens ever four years. Planners for the County are proposing substantial changes to the Comprehensive Plan, but many will be pleased to hear that their draft proposal includes no expansions to established Urban Growth Areas2 (UGAs).

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Still, the County did receive 16 docket proposals from the public to amend the Comprehensive Plan. Six of those proposals are directly related to modifications of UGA policies with four of them actively requesting expansion of UGAs.

The UGA-Related Docket Proposals

Map of 2015 docket requests to the Comprehensive Plan. Click for larger version. (King County)
Map of 2015 docket requests to the Comprehensive Plan. Click for larger version. (King County)

Docket Number 5 is a unique proposal regarding changing the UGA boundaries near the Renton Highlands. The proponents make two separate but related requests. Their seek to either:

  • Contract the size of the UGA to the eastern city limits of Renton; or
  • Prohibit small annexations of the Potential Annexation Area (PAA) – synonymous with the local unincorporated UGA – to Renton unless the entire PAA is annexed to the City at the same time.
Proposed Renton UGA contraction area. (King County)
Proposed Renton UGA contraction area. (King County)

Planners note in their review of the proposal that contraction of the UGA would not serve established countywide growth management policies. Therefore, they recommend that the proposal be rejected.

Docket Number 7 is a proposal to expand the UGA for a pocket of parcels between I-90 and the City of Snoqualmie. The properties are currently zoned as RA-5, a low density rural residential zone, and have a commensurate land use designation of Rural Area. Land to north of the properties form the burgeoning Snoqualmie Ridge community, an area that is dominated by single-family residential developments. Limited strip commercial and services can also be found within the community. Properties to the west of the proposed redesignation area are largely undeveloped while properties to the east are best characterized as large lot residential. Planners have recommended rejection of the proposal to expand the UGA based upon established countywide planning policies.

Proposed UGA expansion near Snoqualmie. (King County)
Proposed UGA expansion near Snoqualmie. (King County)

Docket Number 8 is a proposal to expand the UGA for a pocket of 20 parcels located between urban areas of eastern Sammamish. The proponents have requested the inclusion of the parcels into the UGA so that they could be annexed to the City of Sammamish and developed at urban densities. Surrounding areas have been developed primarily for low density single-family residential uses. However, the planners have recommended that the proposal be rejected.

Proposed UGA expansion near Sammamish. (King County)
Proposed UGA expansion near Sammamish. (King County)

Docket Number 11 is a proposal to include 15 parcels within the UGA along the eastern border of Redmond. All parcels in the proposal are presently zoned as RA-5 and have limited residential development. Citing countywide planning policies and the excess of developable land within the UGA, the planners have recommended that the proposal be rejected.

Proposed UGA expansions near Redmond. (King County)
Proposed UGA expansions near Redmond. (King County)

Docket Number 13 is a proposal to take protected agricultural land out of farming use and place it within the UGA for future urban development and annexation to the City of Woodinville. The parcel of land is immediately adjacent to the city limits and best characterized as a working commercial farm. Properties to the north and west have been fully developed with urban residential uses. Again, planners cite an abundance of urban development capacity within the existing UGA and countywide planning policies for recommending rejection of the proposal.

Proposed UGA expansion near Woodinville. (King County)
Proposed UGA expansion near Woodinville. (King County)
Aerial of land use pattern near the proposed Woodinville UGA expansion site. (Google Maps)
Aerial of land use pattern near the proposed Woodinville UGA expansion site. (Google Maps)

Also worth noting is Docket Number 16, which is a proposal to change County policy on extension of public sewer service to rural unincorporated areas adjacent to UGAs. The proponent notes that extending public sewer systems to such area would reduce wastewater runoff to fertile farming areas and allow additional business. On the face of it, these sound like worthy objectives, but the Growth Management Act actively prohibits the extension of sewer service to unincorporated rural areas on the basis that it is an urban service. Once sewer service is extended, it’s hard to deny requests for higher intensity land uses and urban development. For these reasons, planners have recommended that the policy proposal be rejected.

Not Just Planners Rejecting UGA Expansions

The Seattle Times recently penned an article calling for a rejection of UGA expansion. Admittedly, many of the arguments offered for opposing UGA expansions were clumsy at best. Why criticize urbanism and environmentalism in the same breath? But their central thesis on opposing UGA expansion is wise:

…The boundary is not a relief valve to be opened when the going gets tough. Rather, it’s there to preserve permanently the region’s vital diversity of land uses, habitat and rural economic activity.

This urban-rural mix is one reason the Puget Sound remains a beautiful, livable place. It provides a variety of lifestyle options….

What’s dwindling is easily developable property in the most desirable areas. Easy pickings are gone — subdividable tracts in Sammamish are as scarce as vacant lots in Ballard.

That’s not a crisis — that has been the plan all along. The landmark 1990 Growth Management Act funnels most growth into urban areas while preserving precious natural spaces….

These are important points. King County not only has sufficient capacity for development within UGAs, but every ability to increase development capacity over the current plan period and future ones as well. We don’t have to make a choice between our quality of life and our natural environment. We already have the tools in place to enhance both, and that’s through maintining the urban line and building better communities within.

Looking Ahead

The docket proposals are technically separate from the major update to the county Comprehensive Plan, but the two ultimately overlap. The County Council will have an opportunity to review each of the docket proposals and the recommendations of the County Executive — by way of the planners — prior to final action on the docket proposals. It’s entirely possible that the Council will support one or more of the docket proposals despite recommendations by the County Executive. If any docket proposal is adopted, it would act as an amendment to the overall major update proposal of the Comprehensive Plan. For now, the draft version of the major update to the Comprehensive Plan remains under review until March when it and the docket proposal recommendations are transmitted to the County Council.

If you wish to comment on the docket proposals or the Comprehensive Plan update, contact the project manager, Ivan Miller, and the King County Council.


  1. The “major update” of local comprehensive plans previously was required to occur every ten years, but the State has since revised this requirement to be fullfilled every eight years.
  2. Under specific four-to-one schemes (a program to preserve four acres of land as open space for every one acre added to UGAs by eligible properties), some propeties adjacent to UGAs could qualify for addition to UGAs, but formal proposals must be submitted for a handful of locations prior to March for consideration as part of the update process.

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Stephen is an urban planner with a passion for sustainable, livable, and diverse cities. He is especially interested in how policies, regulations, and programs can promote positive outcomes for communities. Stephen lives in Kenmore and primarily covers land use and transportation issues for The Urbanist.

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The Seattle Times recently [called] for a rejection of UGA expansion …many of the
arguments offered for opposing UGA expansions were clumsy at best. But their central thesis on opposing UGA expansion is wise.

Very well said. I thought that editorial was a crazy mishmash, but I agree with them that we should work to preserve farmland and otherwise try and avoid sprawl.

Looking at the various proposals, it isn’t clear which ones do that. In general I’m confused with the boundaries and their effect on growth. For example, in the Renton case (the first one) what exactly would the change be? Would those areas have more growth or less? If those areas aren’t allowed to grow (converted to rural zoning) I see that as a good thing. East Renton is pretty far out there. If it is allowed to grow, it sure looks like sprawl to me.

Every other proposal looks to be the opposite. Those look like changes designed to encourage sprawl (by changing a rural zoning area to one allowing houses). Did I get that right?

Stephen Fesler

In the case of Renton, the area between Lake Kathleen and East Renton would be removed from the UGA meaning that properties would likely have to be downzoned and precluding most new residential development. The net effect of this would be that other areas in the UGA would have to make up for the theoretically lost development capacity, or other UGA expansions would be required to make up the difference.

In any case, your understanding is correct.

Matt the Engineer

Thanks for following this. Hold the line, King County!