School districts increasingly find themselves boxed in by land-use regulations as they look to acquire properties to relieve overcrowding. In Pierce County, frustrated school districts have responded with a lawsuit against the county. The Bethel, Eatonville, Franklin Pierce, Sumner and Tacoma school districts all claim the county is effectively prohibiting expansion to build more schools, or remodel and expand current ones. They also contend that hyper-technical rural-versus-urban classifications interfere with their ability to educate all students residing in their respective districts.
Prior to his time in the legislature, Rep. Chad Magendanz (R-Issaquah), served as president of the Issaquah School Board. In that capacity he helped oversee the construction of new schools to relieve overcrowding there. In this Q&A, Rep. Magendanz shares his insights about the Pierce County lawsuit, its potential implications for Eastside school districts, and what the state legislature could do to help.
Question: You observed this about the Pierce County ordinances: “These new restrictions are sharply driving up the costs of land acquisition for school districts, and significantly contributed to this year’s Issaquah school bond costing OVER DOUBLE the one that we passed when I was school board president in 2012.” How do these new restrictions drive up costs? Is it a substantial increase?
Answer: These new school siting policies prevent schools outside the urban growth boundary from serving students within the urban growth area. Even if current sites on the boundary are ultimately grandfathered, properties already purchased for future growth would need to be abandoned in order to find urban sites, which will likely require acquiring the property via eminent domain and condemning homes. This drives costs up by roughly five times, and virtually guarantees an opposition campaign for the school construction bonds.
I co-chaired the recent Legislative Task Force on School Siting that met last year to consider this issue. The staff presentation and final report are good background on all aspects of the problem that we considered.
Unfortunately, neither of the two bills that came out of this task force (HB 2377 and HB 2586) were scheduled for hearing by the chair of the House Local Government committee, Rep. Sherry Appleton (D-Poulsbo). Similar bills from past sessions, such as HB 1848 which I authored and Rep. Larry Springer (D-Kirkland) prime sponsored, have also been obstructed, including scheduling a second committee hearing so that King County Executive Dow Constantine could personally testify against the bill and stare down the nine Democratic co-sponsors. This is really unprecedented, and has left affected school districts little option but to challenge the issue in court.
Question: What about King County? Are there similar restrictions there impacting districts, especially ones that have seen significant growth such as Lake Washington, Issaquah, Bellevue or Northshore? Should we expect another lawsuit?
Answer: Yes, the same issues exist in King County. In June 2012, as president of the Issaquah School Board, I testified to the King County Growth Management Planning Council when they were considering these new school siting restrictions. Unfortunately, mine was the only testimony in opposition, and the new policies were unanimously referred to the King County Council for adoption.
In Issaquah, flexible redevelopment options for existing school sites, such as Endeavor Elementary School, Pacific Cascade Middle School, Apollo Elementary School, and Maple Hills Elementary, were proposed. Under normal land use policies, existing sites would be converted to nonconforming uses and limited to a one-time expansion of 10 percent in building square footage, building height, and impervious surface. The King County Executive’s Office agreed to work with the Puget Sound School Coalition and our district to assure flexibility for redevelopment options as a part of the proposed new policy language, but that effort still hasn’t born any fruit.
Question: What justifications are offered by Counties or similar agencies to support these restrictions? Are there any alternative proposals that might help balance the needs of school districts versus the concerns of county government?
Answer: The justification for this restriction is that it’s necessary to prevent suburban sprawl as part of the Growth Management Act (GMA), which was adopted by the Legislature in 1990.
However, it’s worth noting that there’s already a provision in the GMA to make exceptions for “essential public facilities” which includes “facilities that are typically difficult to site, such as airports, state education facilities, and state or regional transportation facilities, regional transit authority facilities, state and local correctional facilities, solid waste handling facilities, and inpatient facilities including substance abuse facilities, mental health facilities, group homes, and secure community transition facilities.”
All we want to do is broaden “state education facilities” to include those belonging to school districts. This seems pretty logical and consistent to me.
Question: What do parents need to know about this issue? Is there anything the legislature can do to resolve it?
Answer: Parents need to know that this is a symptom of a much broader set of issues related to growth management on the Eastside, and they should be working with their elected officials to call for an evaluation of the program to determine how effective we’ve been in achieving the GMA’s stated goals. Providing some flexibility in school siting seems like a common-sense change that’s a simple technical fix to the policy, especially considering that the already existing exceptions allowed for state education facilities like junior colleges and skills centers. But growth management purists have been obstructing school districts even while assisting regional transit authorities to site their facilities in the same areas.
I would encourage Eastside parents to ask their school board members how this is affecting their land acquisition costs and ability to pass future bond measures. Ask why Seattle legislators are obstructing bills that primarily affect suburban school districts which straddle the urban growth boundaries. And ask why we’re once again forced to legislate through the courts.