Skagit County, WA - 4/7/02 -
Tom Karsh has a list of things to do. There are 68 items on that
list. None of them is quick or easy to do. All of the items are
things that someone wants done. The Legislature and courts have
mandated dozens of tasks to bring the county in compliance with
the state’s Growth Management Act.
In the background, residents of 16 villages and rural areas are
waiting for the county to revise the plan for their area, allowing
much more local control over their communities.
But for Karsh, director of Skagit County’s Planning and
Permit Center, it doesn’t matter who wants a refinement to an
ordinance or a neighborhood plan for a corner of the county. All
that matters is what the deadline is and how much money it will
Some of the pressure was taken off Tuesday when Gov. Gary Locke
signed a bill that moved the deadlines on some issues from Sept.
1, 2002, to Dec. 1, 2005. But there are still plenty of deadlines
to meet, mostly those imposed by the courts and hearing boards.
“Honestly, those are more than able to fill our staff’s
time for the rest of the year,” he said.
The county’s planning department has so many tasks before it
— 31 items demanded by the Legislature or courts and 37 more
requested by residents or county officials — that the items have
been prioritized into a list that will keep the staff busy at
least into 2008.
Planning can be costly
To take a big bite out of that list this year would have cost
nearly $1 million in taxpayer money. And most of those items would
simply be to resolve issues demanded by the state or the courts.
Often, landowners can be left in limbo, uncertain what they will
be allowed to do with their land, while the county tries to craft
an ordinance suitable to the courts.
“I think that the hard decisions will be for the
commissioners to decide what items on that list we just can’t
get to this year,” Karsh said. “And frankly it’s most of
Although Karsh oversees a staff of about 33 people, only about
six actually have time to work on planning issues. The rest
largely work on fulfilling requests from people who want permits,
a job that has become more time-consuming in recent years as
environmental and procedural rules have become more complex.
Each planning task costs money to accomplish, whether it’s a
mere $15,000 for a planning process or hundreds of thousands of
dollars to write a large-scale plan and then defend it in court.
But like every other county department, the planning department
says it doesn’t have enough money.
And while the state continues to impose work on the department,
landowners around Skagit County are waiting for a chance to work
on what are called “sub-area” plans — more detailed
comprehensive plans for their own neighborhoods. Often, they need
those plans to correct what they say were poor judgments made in
creating the countywide plan, which was adopted in 1995.
Waiting his turn
Ken Howard is president of the Association of Skagit County
Landowners and one of the people waiting for a sub-area plan. He
owns about 40 acres on south Fidalgo Island that he purchased in
the late 1980s.
Back then, the zoning in that area allowed four homes for every
10 acres, he said. But when the county adopted a new comprehensive
plan in 1995 to incorporate the regulations of the state’s
Growth Management Act, the zoning there changed to allow just one
home for every 10 acres. That scuttled Howard’s dream of
building houses for his children on the land as they grew.
A sub-area plan would allow the county’s planners to take a
closer look at the unique circumstances of small areas around the
county, said Gary Christensen, the county’s assistant planning
director. Many features and areas were just too small to warrant
much attention when the county’s main plan, which covered about
1.1 million acres, was completed, he said.
Sub-area plans also allow local landowners and residents to be
more involved in shaping their corner of the county, Christensen
The planning department has 16 such plans slated for the next
six years. Of those, the South Fidalgo Island plan is expected to
be the most costly, because it is expected to be among the most
contentious and therefore the most time-consuming. While some
residents, like Howard, want to be able to build houses, other
residents want to keep the area as undeveloped as possible.
Land-use issues can be emotionally charged and difficult to
resolve, Christensen said, and people are passionate about it
because it directly affects their quality of life and the value of
“When you get involved in these processes, there are no two
minds alike,” Christensen said. “It’s kind of like asking
someone, ‘How do you define beautiful?’”
An example of how expensive plans can get is the Similk Beach
plan. The planning there wasn’t even a full process, just enough
to allow a community sewer system that would address problems with
local septic systems and comply with state law, Karsh said. The
process still cost the county about $20,000.
Before the planning department can even get to the sub-area
plans, though, it has to address mandated issues — things the
state wants done soon. In many cases, the county had already
examined the issue and created a plan, which was thrown out by the
Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board or Superior
Court. Other issues have to be addressed as part of the county’s
timeline to complete tasks required by the Growth Management Act.
With so much work to be done, Karsh asked for an additional
person and $1 million in the 2002 county budget. What he got
instead was $225,000, of which at least $150,000 was expected to
be spent on legal fees. A state grant provided $80,000 to work on
some of the projects with shorter deadlines, and the county
dedicated $40,000 more, which put the completion of four tasks
within sight. That left about $35,000 to work with this year.
More work to consultants
In order to finish the work the staff lacks time to do, the
department has turned to outside consultants — specialists in
planning issues who can relieve the county’s workload, for a
price. Whether that money could be better spent on hiring
additional people to work on the projects in-house for less money
is open to debate.
The trend in the 1990s was to outsource as much as possible,
because government was assumed to be inefficient, Karsh said. But
he said he suspects many projects could be done more efficiently
and effectively by county staff.
Although consultants do most of the work on their own, they
don’t completely free the staff of the burden. They still have
to be managed, and that takes staff time and attention, Karsh
Some items are better given to consultants than others.
Defending the county’s plans and policies in court, for
instance, has been handled by a Seattle law firm, Buck and Gordon,
because those lawyers have far more expertise than anyone on the
county staff, he said. But, he said, he hopes to wean his
department away from that firm by relying more on John Moffat, the
county’s chief civil lawyer.
Some elements of the comprehensive plan can be handled by
consultants without too much problem, Karsh said, while other
elements, like the county’s unified development code, should be
handled in-house by the people who will have to interpret and
There are advantages to having consultants do the work,
“We have a saying: ‘Consultants work evenings, weekends and
holidays,’” he said. That can make them more effective at
meeting deadlines, he said.
In addition, adding a new employee is a long-term financial
commitment unless the county is willing to hire and fire them
“If it’s a project of limited duration, it’s probably
more cost-effective to use an external consultant rather than
bring in an employee and have those long-term issues,” said Brad
Whaley, the county’s finance director.
Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt agreed. The county often relies on
short-term grants to get some of these projects done, he said.
“Long-term, because of the budget constraints, I think it’s
ill-advised to hire staff if we don’t have a solid source of
funding to keep them,” he said.
There is some relief possible for people waiting for sub-area
plans, though — they can pay for the work themselves. Karsh said
people in the private sector who wanted a sub-area plan could pay
for the consultant, or an election could be held to see if
residents would be willing to tax themselves to get the work done.