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"What price growth...?"

Growth lugs suitcase of changes to rural King

Southeast county struggles with rapid and, often, unwanted urbanization

Aimee Green; The News Tribune

Twenty years ago, Yvonne and Bill Simmermon bought what they thought would always be their patch of country paradise: two acres of land with enough room to raise horses, chickens and their two children.

Undisturbed, they enjoyed horseback riding down their rural road and the chirp of crickets at night.

But now, as population spills into once-rural parts of southeast King County, long-time residents such as the Simmermons grow ever more fearful that they're losing the small-town, country environment that they've come to cherish.

Today, downtown Covington nudges against the Simmermons' front door. The sounds of a QFC loading dock linger late into the night. Their front yard offers a view of a Les Schwab Tire Center. Minivans whip by at 40 mph, and they wouldn't dream of riding their horses anywhere near home.

"I used to think this was the place we wanted to retire," said Yvonne Simmermon, a resident of the newly incorporated city. "It used to be nice."

Downtown Covington, once quaint but now largely identified by Taco Bell, Hollywood Video and Fred Meyer, has become a regular Federal Way, residents say.

Maple Valley's lush forests now offer refuge - in the form of bargain-priced dream homes with triple-car garages - for hundreds of families fleeing Seattle's rising home prices.

Residents of Enumclaw cringe as horse pastures disappear, housing developments bloom and newcomers complain about the smell of the manure that farmers have spread on their fields for generations.

And in Black Diamond, some worry the tide of development will transform this historic close-knit coal-mining town into just another bedroom community. Already, a developer plans to build a 36-hole golf course and up to 1,600 luxury homes there, most selling for $400,000 to $1 million.

If they had wanted to live in the city, many residents of these cities say, they would have. They don't like the idea of the city moving out to them.

"You know what people around here call the area from Renton down to Auburn?" asked Bob Charles, owner of a Black Diamond book store. "Death Valley. They've paved it, asphalted it, concreted it, and it seems to take forever to get across."

The boom continues

When Black Diamond resident Wanda Kryzsko was a child 40 years ago, her dogs used to sleep in the middle of Auburn-Black Diamond Road. Everyone in town knew the hounds would be there, and the occasional car scooted around them.

But the dogs she owns today wouldn't last a minute on what has become a major county thoroughfare.

"I figure it's kind of inevitable," Kryzsko said. "We knew sooner or later, it'd start growing."

And growing it is.

Black Diamond's population has increased nearly 50 percent in the 1990s - not including the residents it gained by annexation. By 2012, its current population of 3,600 is projected to swell to 8,600. This summer, the city will get its first traffic signal - a blinking yellow light - next to its only school.

In Enumclaw, planners expect the population to jump from 10,500 to 13,000, a 24 percent increase.

And in the Covington-Maple Valley area, the population will increase by 17 percent, estimates say.

All this comes on the heels of already tremendous growth: all four cities in southeast King County have grown much faster than the county as a whole since 1990. Maple Valley, in fact, boomed by 65 percent, more than seven times the county's rate of 8.3 percent.

The desire to manage this growth is the primary reason both Maple Valley and Covington incorporated late last summer.

And as population increases, density will, too. That's the idea behind the state's Growth Management Act.

It promises the faces of these small towns - which it now classifies as "cities" - will continue to change, requiring each to take in its share of 300,000 new county residents over 20 years. But it also promises land outside these cities will stay rural.

In 1994, county officials drew a squiggly north-south line through the county. Covington, Maple Valley and Black Diamond fall to the west of the line, where every bit of land eventually will be part of a city.

They made Enumclaw an urban island east of the line.

Residents of these cities in southeast King County already are witnessing the transformation from rural to suburban. Now they're bracing themselves for the next wave: the transition from suburban to urban.

An uneasy feeling

Ever heard of the "Lesser Seattle" campaign: a grass-roots crusade to downplay the virtues of the city in hopes fewer people will move there?

Residents of this once-rural corner of the county say they're all for everything from "Lesser Enumclaw" to "Lesser Covington" movements.

"I know it sounds hypocritical, but now that we've moved out here, I wish no one else would,' said Joni Reynolds, who moved to Black Diamond from Montana almost two years ago. "Right now, everything's almost too good to be true."

Residents say the size of the city's school is just right. They like how milk is delivered to their front doors. And they enjoy the streams, forests and starry night skies - untainted by big-city lights - that could vanish with growth.

"It's just a matter of time before this explodes into another Covington," said Michelle Mahon. In the past eight years, she has moved from Federal Way to Covington to Black Diamond, fleeing urbanization.

"My God, have you been to Covington lately?" Mahon asked. "It's the fast-food capital of the world."

But even before the commercial developments, residents notice the traffic.

"It's something else," said Wendell Dawson, a retired 35-year resident of Maple Valley. Without the aid of a traffic light, it often takes him a full five minutes to pull his car onto the two-laned Kent-Kangley Road.

Thousands make the daily exodus west - mostly toward Seattle, Bellevue, Kent and Tacoma - and back on spindly two-lane county roads.

As the population grows, the problem is bound to get worse. While 20-year projections say southeast King County will grow by more than 20,000 residents, they say jobs will increase by only 3,000. And that means more commuters.

In Enumclaw, 80 percent of working residents already commute out of town, according to the area's Chamber of Commerce.

Black Diamond residents say the 1,600 new luxury homes planned there - and possibly 1,000 more on hundreds of acres of Plum Creek Timber Co. land - will surely attract owners who commute to earn big-city salaries.

"You can't work in a gravel pit and afford a $400,000 home," said Julie Scherr, referring to one of Black Diamond's long-time employers.

The shortage of water is another sure sign the area has grown too fast, residents say. It has forced Covington, Maple Valley and Enumclaw to stop issuing new building permits until they can decide how to best divvy up their limited water supply and secure more.

If it hadn't already, the fact that growth is coming and their lifestyles will change is finally sinking in.

Some even say they enjoy the conveniences growth brings. Lou Green, a 25-year resident of Covington, says he appreciates the medical office building going up next door to his home, on an empty lot where deer and coyotes once roamed.

Having doctors nearby can't hurt, says Green, who has a history of heart problems.

"Besides, things are going to change," he said. "You can't put up a fence and keep people out."

Some accept it, while others choose to fight it. They attend public meeting after meeting, opposing everything from zoning changes to proposals for new apartment complexes.

Accepting growth

It's that attitude that worries Metropolitan King County Councilman Chris Vance, an author of the county's growth-management plan.

"That attitude - if it prevails - will destroy all of our urban planning efforts," Vance said. "It could be the Achilles' heel - the fundamental flaw - in growth-management planning."

When angry residents complain in large numbers, elected officials start to feel the anti-growth pressure. Those who don't give in are voted out.

Then the day may come when cities refuse to meet their share of population increases and legislators start to dismantle the Growth Management Act. The result would be urban sprawl, they say: home after home stretching through the countryside, and the expensive and environmentally damaging extension of urban services.

"There's increasing pressure to make changes because folks aren't happy," said Ikuno Masterson, manager of the county's growth management program in the Office of Budget and Strategic Planning. "But what are you going to do? It's better to contain growth than allow sprawl."

Now is a pivotal time for Covington, Maple Valley and - ultimately - the rest of the county. Both new cities have until August 1999 to write their comprehensive plans, which will spell out how much growth they're willing to take over the next 20 years.

The feelings of residents who testify at public hearings will clearly have an impact on those numbers, city officials say.

Covington and Maple Valley officials say they're not sure exactly how much is too much, but they won't allow the rate of growth the county allowed before they incorporated.

Mayor Laure Iddings questions how Maple Valley can accept extensive growth and still preserve the quality of life residents moved out there for.

"A family with children, shouldn't they be allowed to have a back yard with a swing set?" Iddings asked.

Iddings doesn't see high-rise apartment complexes in the city's future, nor does she see how the city's roads, crowded schools and single park can accommodate the people they're expected to.

Meanwhile, Black Diamond plans to grow by thousands more than county expectations. A city almost as old as Seattle, it isn't suffering the growth pains inherited by its newly incorporated neighbors. Its growth has been neither as fast nor as unchecked - and it desperately needs the money.

Home to one of the poorest fire districts in the state, Black Diamond has 60-year-old water mains that don't provide enough pressure to meet county firefighting standards. And just last month, two City Council members donated their salaries to help buy a used fire-support car.

"We plan to accept the growth but keep the things that make Black Diamond feel like Black Diamond," said city planner Jason Paulsen. For example, the city could adopt ordinances encouraging alleys, which would remove garages as the main feature of homes and rid neighborhoods of that suburban feel.

While Black Diamond is willing to take extra growth, that doesn't solve the widespread problem growth-management advocates face: convincing country-minded folk that city life can be palatable.

This Nov. 7 and 8, the King County Council plans to sponsor a "livable communities fair," a weekend in Seattle when city planners, builders and residents can share ideas on how growth - if done right - can make communities stronger and closer, creating what have been called "urban villages."

"We've got to pay attention to how people feel about the changes," said County Councilwoman Maggi Fimia (D-Seattle), who's organizing the fair. "It's the only way we're going to succeed at growth management."

  • Staff writer Aimee Green covers South King County. Reach her at 253-941-9634, in Pierce County at 253-597-8712 or by e-mail at axg@p.tribnet.com

    The News Tribune

    April 12, 1998

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