An aerial photo of the Houghton community council area

As a Kirkland resident, I was shocked to learn just this spring that one neighborhood in my city has outsized influence over the entire city’s land use planning. This power was created by a 1967 law, RCW 35.14, designed to entice smaller jurisdictions to merge with larger ones. It gave the smaller jurisdictions veto power over land use planning within their historical boundaries, creating community councils to exercise that authority.

Today, only two such community councils remain: The Houghton Community Council (HCC) in Kirkland, created in 1968, and the East Bellevue Community Council (EBCC), created in 1969. The others have been dissolved. Although I am most familiar with Kirkland, both these councils create a structural inequity that gives a very small portion of each city’s population outsized influence over land use planning in the entire city.

For over 50 years, Kirkland’s HCC has exercised its veto power (and veto threat) to “protect” itself from changes deemed undesirable — pushing densification and services into the other Kirkland neighborhoods which lack that power. 

(Credit: City of Kirkland)

Because of its veto power, the Houghton jurisdiction essentially acts a city within a city, leading to time-consuming and costly negotiations to either placate Houghton or exempt it from the city’s rules. Houghton even has its own version of the entire “missing middle housing” zoning code because of so many differences with the City of Kirkland’s policy. Houghton adds significant restrictions on duplexes, triplexes, and cottage developments, further exacerbating the housing shortage in order to maintain its neighborhood “character.”

Houghton also has exempted itself from Kirkland’s 10% affordable housing requirements in most of its commercial, high density residential, medium density, and office zones. And even refuses to allow roof height limits to be extended just 6” to accommodate solar panels.

(Credit: City of Bellevue)

Like the HCC, the EBCC has also exercised its power to develop differing rules from Bellevue, resulting in tensions between the EBCC and the city. As The Urbanist reported in May 2021, the EBCC’s actions opposing state mandated parking reform has embroiled the City in a costly legal battle at the expense of citywide taxpayers. In 2017, the EBCC was in litigation with PSE over the location of power lines. Although Bellevue had approved the project, it was required to fund EBCC’s legal fees.

Every four years, the community councils are placed on the ballot for renewal. Only residents within the council boundaries are allowed to vote. This past November, voters in both the HCC and EBCC jurisdictions voted overwhelmingly, as expected, to retain their special privilege. Notice what a small sliver of overall voters that represents!

A pie chart showing vote results
(Credit: Jennie Jaeger)
A table breaking down vote results
(Data from City of Kirkland)
A pie chart showing vote results
(Credit: Jennie Jaeger)
A table breaking down vote results
(Data from City of Bellevue)

So now it is time to turn to the Washington State legislature to fix the problem it created decades ago. It must end the community councils. By design, these councils can only obstruct. They have no obligation to provide services to the community.

All seven Kirkland City Council members have expressed strong support for adding HCC sunsetting to their 2022 legislative priorities. WA State Representatives Amy Walen and Larry Springer are working to introduce legislation this session to dissolve the councils.

It is important to shine a brighter light on the issues created by the councils. Most residents still seem to have no clue that they exist. In this time of unprecedented growth, with its housing affordability and environmental challenges, a small sliver of the population cannot be allowed to impede progress. Every vote must count equally. The councils are inefficient and undemocratic. Immediate sunsetting is the only equitable solution.

To learn more about the effort to dissolve the Houghton and East Bellevue Community Councils, see our website where we have additional information, endorsements from local officials, and more.

Article Author
Beverly Marcus (Guest Contributor)

Beverly Marcus moved from Seattle to downtown Kirkland about five years ago. She co-led the grassroots effort that helped to successfully sunset the inequitable Houghton and East Bellevue community councils via state legislation in 2022. She is a fan of walkable neighborhoods with close access to day-to-day necessities, more housing choices throughout the city, mixed-use development, and a wider variety of transit options.