They Sprawl, We Pay!

Lesser-known costs of spreading out.

Wendy DiPeso commented on my piece

 “As long as the Counties are allowed to continue to issue permits for new housing developments outside of city limits we will continue to see expanding sprawl,.. because it is cheaper to build on county land with no requirements for providing service. Cities end up paying to add services when they incorporate the new developments. It is as if tax payers
subsidize developers that build in unincorporated areas.”

Right you are, Wendy. I have to give King County credit for honesty.
There’s a budgetary thing they actually call “the urban subsidy”. Standard
& Poor’s (Oct. 13, 2008)
said it this way: “County finances continue to face the challenge of providing local municipality-like services to 370,000 residents living in unincorporated King County. The cost of providing
these services ($46.7 million in 2008) exceeds the revenues generated in the unincorporated areas ($25.1 million), producing a so-called "urban
subsidy" to unincorporated areas of $21.1 million per year.”

Basically, city residents pay their property taxes to the city and get basic services in return. KingCo residents pay their property taxes and the county… builds roads. Then they charge all of us, not just out-county people, but even those of us in the cities more money to cover the basic services for those people.

It’s been recognized by other jurisdictions, like Woodinville in May 2003, in the text of a city resolution, where they said “Section 2. The
Woodinville City Council requests King County not to increase urban subsidy of rural services and to spend levy resources collected from incorporated areas only on regional parks and facilities.” Clearly they were worried urban tax monies had the potential to go off and do things other than what they wanted.

The farther a home is from a city center the more expensive it is to serve with county services, and those costs go up geometrically. I know we’re all in this together, and I don’t have any problem contributing to the welfare of the less fortunate, but I have a big problem subsidizing people who are
wealthy enough to have their McMansion way out yonder, and especially those who endlessly complain about how much tax they pay!

King County in their 2004 budget said “Implementation of the growth management vision in King County had early significant successes. As late as 1989, more than 40% of King County’s population resided in the unincorporated area. In 1989 new cities began to incorporate; major commercial development areas were also annexed to cities. From 1989 through 1999, ten new cities incorporated and 323,800 unincorporated residents became city residents. The percentage of County residents living outside cities was nearly cut in half: by 2000, only 21% of the County population lived outside cities. In the last few years, however, the pace of annexation has slowed dramatically. From 2000 through April 2003 only 7,600 residents annexed to cities.”

Peachy- urbanized areas are being annexed to the cities or incorporated. They’re better and more efficiently served (us, for instance). Seattle really should annex all adjacent areas to their south- Skyway, White Center/”North Highline”, and such, but… there’s one glaring ugliness in here: those areas only got urbanized because the County has traditionally handed out building permits like popcorn, terrified of legal claims and challenges.

You want to solve local governments’ budget problems? Stop sprawl! What I’d really like to see is… (Gasoline? Meet match. Match? Gasoline)… not one tax penny spent on further road construction. In fact, I hope for a law mandating that for every square foot of additional pavement laid inside an incorporated area at least an equivalent area must be removed from an exurban area. The sprawl must be removed furthest-from-a-city first, or agricultural areas first, or newest first, or by some similar criterion so we literally roll back sprawl and reinvigorate agriculture and natural habitats in the region.

Janet Way October 23, 2011 at 03:22 PM
Larry and Wendy, I agree with your arguments here on sprawl. We should not be expected to pay the price for sprawl. But it is interesting to apply these principles to the problem of Point Wells and how it will impact the surrounding cities, especially Shoreline. I'm very concerned right now about the headlong rush by Shoreline to annex Point Wells. Though it has been on our Comp Plan Goals since the start of our city, I believe that we should not be putting the "cart before the horse". We should not be making the annexation our main goal. While Shoreline may want to annex eventually, it should not be the primary goal. Reducing or eliminating the horrendous impacts of the BSRE proposal should be the primary goal. The rush now towards some "agreement" with BSRE and Snohomish, that the City seems to be on no, is not what the people want. We do not want to buy this problem and sacrifice Richmond Beach in the process. IMHO, we should be utilizing every legal maneuver and mechanism we can deploy, especially DELAY! We should unify our City's goal with Save Richmond Beach and Woodway who have stepped up to the plate. Rushing to settle this now, because of elections or perceived eventual tax revenue streams is settling for a devil's bargain.
Larry Lewis October 23, 2011 at 04:08 PM
This article is mostly a response to a couple comments I've had recently, but to your point: Pt. Wells does NOT count as an "urban island". It's not already developed residentially and has those other problems as well. Its only advantage to Shoreline is proximity, but it meets none of the other criteria for annexation and heavy development.
Tony Dondero (Editor) October 24, 2011 at 01:53 PM
Editor's note: This is from King County Councilwoman Kathy Lambert. "This is not the full story by any means. There is NO SPRAWL in King County. King County has zoned every inch of land in compliance with the Growth Management Act. The land has its designations on it. The growth rate annually for King County rural areas has been less than 2% unlike our surrounding counties rural growth rates which have been at least 4 times higher. The GMA set the growth limits but did NOT say NO growth. The Puget Sound Regional Council PSRC recently stated that King County has been very prudent in their growth policies. In addition, as part of the trade off for no shopping centers or major business establishments in the rural area to generate taxes, the urban areas would pay for some of the services. In trade, they get the rural land to be less dense, serve as an environmental benefit to the entire county as an area for clean water and flood mitigation area. Plus, the people who live in the rural area whose population has dropped because of annexations from 350,000 to about 234,000 and will be reducing to about 200,000 eventually pay taxes in other areas of the county. There is NO accounting for those dollars coming from the rural area residents. The traffic pattern on the "rural roads" is 56% urban drivers. So we are one county and need to work together as per the plan of the GMA.
Tony Dondero (Editor) October 26, 2011 at 01:05 AM
This comment is from Shoreline Planning Commissioner, Janne Kaje: Great discussion. I don’t disagree at all with the need to avoid sprawl, or with the fact that some of our growth patterns can create ‘subsidies’ that arguably support development outside urban growth areas. But, as Councilmember Lambert pointed out re roads, the ‘subsidies' flow in both directions. Surface water management fees are collected on a parcel basis (average in King County is about $145/yr per residential parcel). Whenever a dense, residential area is annexed into a city, those fees stop going to the county and flow to city coffers instead. If only the problems were to do that as well. Stormwater flows downhill and the County is left carrying an outsized share of the load for problems that originate in large part within cities. County surface water funds are used not just for things like detention ponds, bioswales and monitoring, but also a vast array of regional programs with regional-scale environmental benefits. Who pays for the County’s surface water management program? Unincorporated County residents do. What’s the solution? While we certainly need to limit sprawling growth, we also need to recognize that many of our systems and challenges are regional, and the funding models ought to reflect that reality.


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