By Rachel Lerman and Kera Wanielista, January 9, 2014, Go Skagit
Skagit County’s 17-year effort to plan for 5,600 new residents at Bayview Ridge faces yet another hurdle Friday even before the county approves the project.
The plan has hit other major roadblocks in the past few months.
The additional residents would create a need for a new school. But recently-expanded airport traffic zones effectively eliminated any potential school sites. Business growth in the county has created more demand for industrial land around the airport.
On Friday, the Port of Skagit will consider a resolution that recommends Skagit County adopt the expanded air traffic safety overlay zones recommended by the state Department of Transportation. Those expanded zones would render about 30 to 40 percent of the land proposed for Bayview Ridge residential development unusable for housing.
The proposed community, located along the east and south sides of Skagit Regional Airport west of Burlington, is a plan that has been in the works since the late 1990s. County officials envisioned a “livable, walkable community” with homes, parks, stores and a school.
The Burlington-Edison School District said definitively in November it will not put a school anywhere within the subarea. The already-overcrowded district has said it would need a new school to accommodate the proposed population.
In order to make residential development possible at the rate suggested, the county commissioners must approve a planned-unit development ordinance. If approved, development can proceed with an average of four to six housing units per acre.
But Commissioners Ron Wesen and Sharon Dillon have recently expressed concern about putting so many people so close to the airport, especially without a school.
“I believe now that this is not a place for people to live — maybe a place for people to work,” Dillon said this week.
She said she isn’t sure all residential development should be abandoned, but she’d like to see the emphasis on industrial zoning since the port’s plans could bring valuable jobs to the area.
Wesen said he has not yet seen enough proof that Bayview Ridge is the right location for population growth.
“I have to be convinced that there is a reason that those houses have to be located that close to an airport,” he said.
Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt did not return calls for comment. He has previously expressed support for the development.
Port of Skagit’s role
In September, the Port and the county first learned about expanded airport overlay safety zones recommended by the DOT’s Aviation Division, which updated the guidelines in 2011.
The county has been waiting to see if the Port will recommend adoption of the new zones to the county. If it does, the county will lose a large a portion of the land proposed for residential development, said county Planning Director Dale Pernula. The land that would be lost is some of the more desirable flat areas.
There is a long history of conflicts in the Puget Sound area between residential development and airports, said Tim Rosenhan, a county resident who has a background in airport planning. And he isn’t the only one who thinks residential development by an airport is detrimental.
“Can you show me an airport any place in this country where more houses is good for the airport?” Wesen asked.
The final decision is up to the local authority, said Carter Timmerman, DOT aviation planner. But in general, residential is incompatible with airports, he said.
The Port has been fairly quiet on the issue of residential development near its doors over the years, cooperating with the county but staying largely out of the public eye.
The Port has an agreement with Bouslog Properties, the primary owner of the land slated for residential development, which says the Port will continue to support the idea of industrial and residential development in the subarea.
As more people move into an area, over time it may become more difficult for the airport to operate, and avigation easements help prevent lawsuits, said Executive Director Patsy Martin.
County code requires an avigation easement before building underneath the airport overlay zones.
Many things have changed for the airport in the 12 years since the easement was signed, said Port Commissioner Kevin Ware, and some of the restrictions in it that then seemed reasonable may impair the Port now.
The majority of the airport’s funding comes from the state DOT and Federal Aviation Administration, he said, and it is important for the Port to comply with state and federal recommendations to secure funding.
Martin said she doesn’t foresee litigation from residential development. The Port has positive relationships with the existing Country Club and Bay Hill developments.
She remained quiet about the Port’s preferred use of the land, but did say in the bigger picture, the Port is trying to understand what land use is needed in Skagit to grow jobs.
“In my opinion, the county doesn’t have enough industrial land overall,” she said.
Need for a new school
New state DOT airport traffic zone recommendations reduce the area in which a new school could be built. While it is not prohibited, the school district has said it does not want to go against DOT’s recommendations.
“That’d be our No. 1 concern — safety,” said Burlington-Edison Superintendent Laurel Browning. “Our secondary concern is could you garner support from your families and taxpayers to actually put a school there?”
The district would require 13 to 15 acres of land for a new school, as well as utilities, Browning said.
Already, she said, the district is looking for a location to build a new school. With 41 portable classroom units in use throughout the district, many core facilities are already over capacity.
Bay View Elementary School, which is in the subarea, has a building capacity of 425 and an enrollment of 573, according to district numbers.
“We legitimately are over capacity when you take a look at just our core facilities as they stand,” Browning said.
In December, the School Board told the county to proceed with the planned-unit development process without them so as not to continue delaying the process.
As such, the lack of a school in the area has some questioning the future of Bayview Ridge.
“Why do it where you can’t build a school when you have other options?” Wesen said.
Some cities ready to grow
Bayview Ridge grew from the Growth Management Act in an effort to find places outside the cities to accommodate projected growth. At the time, the cities were not taking enough influx, and the county needed a place to plan for excess population.
The county planning department is working on the 2016 comprehensive plan update and will have population numbers in the spring, but state Office of Financial Management numbers show the county is growing slower than it once was.
Despite the building obstacles, some still believe Bayview Ridge is the right place for residential growth.
Jon Sitkin, attorney for John Bouslog, who owns the majority of the land designated for residential development, said the principles for developing at Bayview Ridge are still sound: it is out of the floodplain and has urban services available.
Even if the planned-unit development ordinance is not approved, there are other avenues the developer can utilize, Sitkin said.
“Residential development should be anticipated at Bayview Ridge,” he said. “It’s the right place and could be done compatibly with the airport.”
Others say the area is no longer needed to accommodate growth.
In a shift from the atmosphere in the 1990s, some cities now say they want growth, including Sedro-Woolley.
“We’re ready to grow,” Mayor Mike Anderson said at a November planning commission meeting. “So why spend county time, resources and taxpayers’ money to build another duplicate infrastructure and compete with us?”
Dillon said the cities seem to think they can absorb additional population. Wesen indicated it would be best if the county wasn’t involved in the development and service-providing business, seeing as the cities are well-versed at it.
“Is that something the county needs to be involved in when the cities can do it?” Wesen asked. “I don’t see any reason to compete for that type of expertise.”
If the proposed development and the population that goes with it were to go someplace else in the county, such as Sedro-Woolley, some — but not all — of the pressure would be relieved from the Burlington-Edison School District.
“We would be in the current situation we are now. We are at capacity. We still need to be thoughtful on where we need to put our next school,” Browning said. “Our sense of urgency would be decreased. The sense of urgency moves east.”
Sedro-Woolley Superintendent Phil Brockman said if the population were to come that way, the district has the capability of expanding its schools.