Recession slows county's sprawl


Sep. 24, 2002 - And now for the good news about the recession: It has helped King County government control rural sprawl.

No growth, no sprawl.

According to the county's 2003 Annual Growth Report, released yesterday, King County last year had virtually no population increase -- just 5,000 people out of a population of 1.78 million -- for the first time since the recession of the early 1970s.

"This year's growth report is really kind of a no-growth report," observed Chandler Felt, the document's principal author.

County Executive Ron Sims attributed it to a combination of the economic slump, which cost the county more than 60,000 jobs since January 2001, and the success of the county's growth-management policies, which have directed growth into urban areas and helped revitalize higher-density urban centers in Seattle, Bellevue, Redmond and elsewhere.

He said the policies helped cut the rate of rural development in half, to 4 percent of countywide development, since adoption of the county's current planning policies in 1994.

As Felt recalled, "It was an almost absurd goal in 1994 to say we'd reduce our annual growth to 4 percent in rural areas." It was 8 percent between 1996 and 1998.

"Our growth has leveled off now after a decade of rapid growth," Sims noted, but he cautioned that it will accelerate again when the economy rebounds, probably in 2005 or 2006.

It took the county and its cities only eight years after implementation of the county's 1994 comprehensive plan to meet and exceed their 20-year household-growth targets.

Annexations and six incorporations of new cities have shifted more than 200,000 county residents into suburban cities since 1994.

Yet nearly 220,000 people still live in unincorporated urban areas, 192,600 of them in 10 "islands" surrounded by cities, despite county planning policies that call for all urban areas to be absorbed into cities by 2012.

Sims said his 2004 proposed budget, to be unveiled next month, will contain financial incentives to encourage cities to annex the urban unincorporated areas because "we simply cannot afford to provide an urban level of services in unincorporated King County."

But he denied that his proposed budget will contain disincentives, such as reduced levels of county services, to discourage unincorporated urbanites from balking at being annexed. For example, "We can't not prosecute felons" who commit crimes in those areas, he said.

The growth report said the level of new residential building permits countywide last year dropped slightly to 11,500 units, still above the average of the 1990s, and included 6,000 new single-family houses and mobile homes. Multifamily construction decreased to about 5,500 new units, about half the 1998-2000 average.

Two-thirds of the residential growth, and 94 percent of multifamily housing units, occurred in cities.

The report said 53 percent of residential growth took place on redevelopable land, rather than vacant land, "indicating that King County is using its urban land with increasing efficiency and containing sprawl."
Despite the county's high unemployment rate, 6 percent, Sims said its median household income last year was about $65,000. That's 45 percent higher than the national median.

Income during the 1990s grew 47 percent, faster than the rate of inflation, the report said, and yet King County's cost of living is so high that a family of three with a household income of $40,000 a year, about three times the minimum wage, would struggle to make ends meet.


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