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Lake Roesiger is ringed with houses; its watershed is mostly undeveloped. A mini city of up to 6,000 homes has been proposed for the forested area to the right of the lake. Photo by John Ryan.

Lake Roesiger is ringed with houses; its watershed is mostly undeveloped. A mini city of up to 6,000 homes has been proposed for the forested area to the right of the lake. Photo by John Ryan.


New Mini Cities for Snohomish County?

John Ryan

Washington's growth–management law is designed to funnel development away from forests and farmlands. But the law also allows for the creation of entirely new cities in the middle of rural areas. One developer wants to build a new community of up to 6,000 homes next to Lake Roesiger. That's about 10 miles north of Monroe. Snohomish County officials are set to vote this month on whether to allow, or ban, such "fully contained communities."


Summertime and the livin' is easy for children playing in Lake Roesiger. Families crowd a small public beach on one of the largest lakes in Snohomish County. About 400 cottages and vacation homes line the lakeshore. But the hillsides around the lake are almost completely undeveloped. A low ridge of cut–over forest rises above the opposite shore.

A Seattle developer named Dave Barnett would like to turn that ridge into a new mini city. He's calling it Falcon Ridge. It would be an urban island, surrounded by miles of forest and farmland. Right now, only a couple of quiet, two–lane roads connect the lake to the urban parts of Snohomish County, like Monroe and Everett.

Lake Roesiger is in county councilman Dave Somers' district. He's one of the proposed development's leading critics.

Somers: "Is it really a good idea to put 6,000 to 8,000 homes out here, 8 to 10 miles from existing urban development and create all those impacts? I think this is the worst place to put development in Snohomish County, but it is allowed under state law and now our county code."

Somers is up for re–election. All three candidates for his council seat say they oppose the developments known as "fully contained communities."

The term itself is a bit of a misnomer. Nobody really believes that a community can be fully contained, like some kind of a city in a plastic bubble. But the idea is that a well–planned community, with a good mix of homes, businesses and schools, could reduce the need for people to drive elsewhere in their daily lives.

The county imposed a moratorium on such urban islands last year. It expires at the end of this month (August). The county council is now considering whether to put more restrictions on fully contained communities, or whether to ban them entirely.

Building a new city above Lake Roesiger might harm the lake's water quality. Backers of Falcon Ridge say techniques like stormwater ponds could minimize any ill effects on the water in the lake. Dave Somers says the main problem with with Falcon Ridge as real estate is "location, location, location."

Somers: "I don't think this is an appropriate site, no matter what you do, it's too far out. It's commercial forestland, we're supposed to be protecting it."

Kresovich: "You're not going to do a real estate development without some impact, so the question is, is this the best way to do real estate development in terms of minimizing impacts and providing communities where people really want to live?"

Attorney George Kresovich represents Falcon Ridge developer Dave Barnett. Barnett hasn't submitted any formal applications for Falcon Ridge yet. But he has been trying for about seven years to get the county to let him turn his five square miles of land into a new mini city. Kresovich says building a community from scratch is the best way to develop real estate.

Kresovich: "I think when you provide a dense, urban, walkable community, and that's what a fully contained community is, you very clearly reduce the amount of auto usage compared to typical single–family development."

He says the example of Redmond Ridge in King County proves his point. Redmond Ridge has been under development since the 1980s. Thousands of people live there today. Quadrant Homes weathered decades of controversy to turn Weyerhaeuser timber land into a master–planned community there. Peter Orser is president of Quadrant. He says the mix of businesses and housing at Redmond Ridge will reduce traffic leaving the development by 25 percent or more. Many residents should be able to shop and work inside Redmond Ridge. But Orser admits those jobs haven't materialized yet, and there's more traffic as a result.

Orser: "We have got all the houses, the economy has not supported all the commercial yet, and so you have to let the market engage and fill those commercial spaces and the housing spaces until it all comes into balance."

Critics including Snohomish county councilman Dave Somers say fully contained communities never find that balance. They say putting new homes outside of urban areas is a simple recipe for longer commutes, worse traffic and more pollution. Somers says at least Redmond Ridge is near I–90 and Microsoft. He says the Lake Roesiger site is so remote that its residents would always have to drive elsewhere for work.

Somers: "If you're going to have jobs, any hope of attracting jobs, you've got to be on the grid."

Peter Orser with Quadrant says his company has gotten out of the business of building fully contained communities in favor of smaller–scale developments. King County no longer allows fully contained communities to be built outside urban areas.

Snohomish County officials could decide as soon as Wednesday whether to allow new urban islands to crop up in the rural parts of the county. I'm John Ryan, KUOW News.

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