Cities' growth stalls: - Annexations `a mess' following court decision

by Mike Archbold, Wendy Giroux and Nick Perry
Eastside Journal Reporters

Cheaper taxes. Better services. Road improvements. Shorter nonemergency police response times.

The list of benefits that Eastgate residents could expect if they switched allegiance from King County to Bellevue goes on and on.

Many of the 4,200 Eastgate residents who live on an ``island'' of unincorporated King County surrounded by Bellevue want to make the switch. Bellevue wants it to happen, and King County would love to improve its bottom line by ceding control.

Everyone, in fact, seems in agreement. Annexation was on track to take place within 18 months by landowner petition.

But that transfer and many others like it on the Eastside and around the state have suddenly been thrown into doubt.

The direct-petition method of annexation was eliminated under a March 14 state Supreme Court ruling that has city officials shaking their heads.

Now, residents across the state who want to annex to a city will have to vote in an election, the only method left under state law. But elections tend to be cumbersome, costly and slow.

``It seems like they have made a terrible mess of things,'' said Larry Stockton, city services director for North Bend.

``How can you plan?'' asked Redmond Planning Director Roberta Lewandowski. ``There has to be a legislative fix to this.''

A majority of the Supreme Court tossed out the 57-year-old petition method. In a case involving annexations by the cities of Yakima and Moses Lake, the justices declared that the law violates the state Constitution by unfairly giving a privilege to a minority, the owners of high-value properties.

Under the direct-petition method, those who owned land representing between 60 percent and 75 percent of an area's assessed value could petition a city for annexation.

The result was that a few large landowners could dominate the process, sometimes at the expense of those with smaller parcels of land who opposed annexation. Renters and other residents who did not own property were left out of the process altogether.

Petitions were used in 90 percent of annexations statewide and had been the preferred tool for cities to handle growth.

Like Bellevue with its plans to annex Eastgate, Redmond was preparing to gobble up 200 acres of unincorporated King County in the Rose Hill area. Sammamish was in the process of annexing Rainbow Ranch, a 30-home subdivision adjacent to Klahanie.

Nobody can say when those annexations might now take place.

Each year in King County, there are about two dozen annexations, most of them small. Reasons for annexing range from county residents seeking better police and fire service to concerns about land use.

Between April 2000 and April last year, cities throughout King County annexed a total of 1,248 acres, with a population of about 1,000 people, according to the King County Annual Growth Report.

Among the questions buzzing around city halls are:

* What happens to a parcel of undeveloped land or a school property whose owner wants to annex? With no residents to vote in an election, city attorneys say there is no way to annex the land separately.

* How can a city enforce its existing utility agreements with property owners outside the city limits? Cities often require that noncity property owners agree not to protest an annexation in exchange for receiving city services such as water and sewer. Now city councils might want to re-evaluate policies for extending services outside city boundaries.

* Does the ruling conflict with the goals of the state's Growth Management Act, which calls for cities to eventually annex urban lands on their fringes? Potential annexation areas are designated around many cities in King County.

* Is the decision retroactive? Will the court decision invalidate previous petition annexations, thereby unraveling existing city boundaries and leading to numerous jurisdictional questions?

``City officials are looking for guidance,'' said Pat Mason, an attorney with the Municipal Research Center in Seattle, which works closely with the Association of Washington Cities. ``It really is a major decision.''

The Supreme Court itself may supply some answers.

Moses Lake and Yakima are expected to file a motion within three weeks asking the court to reconsider its decision and clarify some of the questions raised. While the cities would like the court to change its mind, that rarely happens.

Attorney Brian Snure argued the court case with his father, Clark Snure. They successfully represented residents and two fire districts objecting to the annexations. Brian Snure said they don't expect a reversal.

``The cities seem to be taking the tack that the sky is falling,'' Brian Snure said. But cities will quickly figure out what they need to do next, he said.

The decision doesn't stop annexations, he added; rather, it requires cities to get approval from the voters first.

``There are answers,'' he said.

If there are problems, cities can turn to the state Legislature for remedies, Snure said, so long as the fix passes constitutional muster.

Martin Durkan Jr., a land-use consultant in King County, applauds the decision. He said it is time that cities informed residents of their land-use plans.

But some developers are unhappy with the change.

``It's easy for a bunch of judges to make a ruling without knowing what the total ramifications are for people actually dealing with these things,'' said Steven Beck, a broker and developer with John L. Scott.

``I think the cities will have to take the lead because this is such a ridiculous ruling,'' Beck said.

On the Eastside, the ruling will likely have the following effects:

Bellevue: The planned annexation of 827 acres and 4,200 people in the Eastgate area is on hold. Future annexations of 600 people on 100 acres in the Hilltop area and 50 people on 75 acres in the Lakemont area are uncertain.

Bellevue officials say they are prepared to put the annexations to a vote if necessary.

Redmond: Planned annexation of 200 acres in the Rose Hill area is now in doubt.

Kirkland: No immediate effects. The city has studied annexing three large chunks of land within its future growth boundaries: Finn Hill, North Juanita and Kingsgate, but all were found to be money losers. The city, already struggling with low sales tax revenues, is in no hurry to annex.

Sammamish: Planned annexation of 100 residents in the Rainbow Ranch area is on hold. The city is prepared to put the planned annexation of 10,000 residents in the Klahanie area to a vote.

Both Klahanie and Rainbow Ranch are part of Issaquah's planned annexation area, but discussions are under way to transfer both into Sammamish's annexation area.

Issaquah: Planned annexation of Providence Point is unaffected. The city already had planned to use the election method for the 1,200 residents of the senior living community. The city is seeking county approval for a May 21 special election.

North Bend: No immediate effect. The city plans eventually to double its size, but cannot annex in the short term. That is because the city has a development moratorium in effect, due to a lack of water rights.

Journal reporter Tim Larson contributed to this report.


Although the annexation petition process has been eliminated by the state Supreme Court, state law still allows for annexation by election.

Election was the only annexation method allowed before 1945, when the state Legislature added the petition method. (That method allowed property owners accounting for 60 percent to 75 percent -- depending on the kind of city -- of an area's assessed valuation to petition a city council for annexation.)

Under the election method, there are two ways to begin the process:

* A city may adopt a resolution to initiate the annexation, which is then filed with the county.

* A petition for an annexation may be signed by residents of the area. The number of signatures must equal at least 20 percent of the ballots cast in that area in the last election. The petition is filed with the county and the city. The city can approve or reject the petition.

If rejected, the process ends. If approved by the city council, the annexation goes to the King County Boundary Review Board. The board reviews all annexation requests, either by administrative review or, if requested, a public hearing. The board can modify the proposal or even reject it. Rejection ends the process.

If the board approves the annexation, the city and county agree on a special election date.

The registered voters living within the annexation area vote, usually by mail. A simple majority is required to approve the annexation.

Usually, voters also are asked to assume the bonded indebtedness of the city. That can be done through a separate measure on the ballot or by combining the annexation and indebtedness into a single measure. In either of those cases, the measure must receive a 60 percent yes vote with a turnout representing at least 40 percent of those casting ballots in the last general election.

Voter approval of the annexation means the city must accept the annexation. If voters rejected the indebtedness, the city can reject the annexation.


To learn more about the recent state Supreme Court ruling on annexations and about the petition method of annexation, check out these sites on the Internet:

* Washington state courts:

* Municipal Research & Services:

* Association of Washington Cities:

* RCW chapter 35.13.001-35.13.900, which governs annexations:


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