by Christie Stewart Stein
More than two years of fierce public outcry and organizing against so-called Fully Contained Communities (FCCs) ended in a unanimous vote on May 8, 2023 by Skagit Board of County Commissioners (BoCC). Their vote EXCLUDED from the 2023 docket two previously docketed and then deferred proposals to allow FCCs in Skagit.
Skagit Scoop first covered the threat of FCCs in July 2021 with Margery Hite’s article Fully Contained Communities and Why We Should Be worried About them. More articles followed the first alarm, ending with two written by former Skagit County Long Range Planner Kirk Johnson, County docketing of FCC Proposal Circumvents Regional Planning Process, and What Is the Framework Agreement? in December 2021.
How We Got Here
The saga began years ago as Bellingham-based developer Bill Sygitowicz, operating under the name Skagit Partners LLC, repeatedly attempted to get County approval to build what he called a Fully Contained Community adjacent to the Avalon Golf Links on Butler Hill north of Burlington. The “partners” referenced in the corporate name are nine property owners who agreed to sell their property to Sygitowicz if he could secure permits for the building project.
The effort did not succeed, probably because FCCs, large-scale housing developments of thousands of homes built in unincorporated rural areas, were not supported by County Planning and Development Services (PDS) staff at the time, nor did County Commissioners appear attracted to the idea. In addition, FCCs are not allowed under the County’s policies embodied in its Comprehensive Plan (Comp Plan) nor under the Countywide Planning Policies (CPP) adopted by the cities and towns and the County. Fully Contained Communities are an allowed use under the Growth Management Act (GMA), defined in RCW 36.70A.350 as a county-level option.
Filing a proposal for the 2021 Comprehensive Plan Amendment docket, Sygitowicz took a new approach. His 2021 proposal asked the County to change the Comp Plan, Development Regulations, and Countywide Planning Policies to allow FCCs. In May 2021, the people of Skagit were shocked into action after County Commissioners unanimously agreed to include the FCC proposal on the docket, meaning it could be considered for approval. Commissioners included the proposal for the 2021 docket in spite of comments from over 500 individuals and organizations opposing the measure. The proposal would not only have allowed “Avalon”, but could have opened all rural areas of the county to urban sprawl.
Farmers Step Up to Take Action First
Farmers were confident in their traditional ability to influence the County Commissioners. A group of farmers affiliated with Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland (SPF) arranged to meet with each Commissioner individually. Accompanying them was Conservation District Board member Margery Hite. The farmers spoke forcefully about the threats this kind of development poses to farmland and Skagit’s robust, uniquely diversified farming economy. Lifelong farmer John Roozen of Washington Bulb Company vividly described how encroaching development ruined his crops when drainage patterns changed and his fields flooded.
According to participants, each Commissioner expressed concern about Skagit’s very real shortage of housing. Commissioner Lisa Janicki spoke of the “housing crisis”. Commissioner Peter Browning was enthusiastic about the benefits of FCCs at that time. Commissioner Ron Wesen stated in his meeting, as he did in many following public settings, his view that:
“The cities aren’t taking the growth, so the County has to do it.”
Legal and Procedural Obstacles Raised
To their surprise, the farmers found that they could not get traction persuading the Commissioners to back away from the FCC proposal. Ms. Hite is a retired local government attorney who also served on the Growth Management Hearings Board. She pointed out that the Growth Management Act (GMA) prohibits the County from changing the Comprehensive Plan in a way that makes it inconsistent with the Countywide Planning Policies. She also pointed out that the County cannot unilaterally change the CPPs.
The BoCC appeared to receive incorrect information from PDS staff. The Planner present for these meetings asserted that the County could change the Comprehensive Plan, and then circle back to the cities at a later point. The BoCC accepted their assessment, and the PDS began scheduling out the process for State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) review of the proposal.
The group of SPF farmers left this first round of meetings empty handed, but not without asking Commissioner Ron Wesen if there was something they could do to change his mind. His response, without suggesting how a group of non-city citizens might proceed,
“Make the cities take the growth!”
Who’s Really Taking The Growth?
The question of “cities not taking the growth” is an important and misleading one. According to the Framework Agreement negotiated as the result of a lawsuit against the County at the beginning of the Growth Management Act, the parties allocated the population growth in Skagit County with 20% going to unincorporated Skagit County and 80% going to the cities and towns within established Urban Growth Areas.
In a public meeting in 2021, then County Long-Range Planner Peter Gill stated that the unincorporated county had taken 27% of the growth during the several preceding years . This figure would mean that the cities had, in fact, taken 73% of the growth, a substantial majority, though not quite reaching the 80% target. During that time however, the cities were actively amending their own Comprehensive Plans, allowing for smaller lot sizes to accommodate more homes, writing regulations to allow Accessory Dwelling Units (Mother-in-law apartments), and the like to increase capacity for more housing.
According to the most recent report from Skagit Council of Governments (SCOG),
During the 2017-2022 observed period, 75.4% of new population growth occurred in urban growth areas, with 24.6% of new growth occurring in the rural unincorporated county.
As one FCC opponent said,
“Doesn’t it seem that turning to Fully Contained Communities to address a 5% shortfall in growth targets is a little like going after a fly with a hand grenade rather than a fly swatter?”
In any case, the objective is to reach the 80/20 goal in the 20-year period of the agreement, not in any one year.
My Jaw Dropped
Meanwhile, other people in Skagit were realizing the grave risk to everyone’s quality of life this proposal represented. When word first arrived of the impending proposal, one of my neighbors from a long-established farming family said,
I can’t believe that all three of our County Commissioners would be in favor of Fully Contained Communities.
Not long later, he expressed a common sense of shock,
I spoke with Commissioner Wesen this morning and he is indeed in favor of Fully Contained Communities. My jaw dropped.
Citizens/Farmers Get Organized
The public did not wait to see what would happen. A group of local, non-profit organizations from all across the political spectrum formed the Right Growth, Right Place Coalition whose specific mission is to:
“Permanently prevent Fully Contained Communities from being built in Skagit County”.
They began organizing, educating the public, collecting signatures on a petition opposing FCCs, amassing a long list of supporters, and raising money to fund their extensive activities. Emails, letters, and phone calls opposing FCCs inundated Commissioners’ inboxes. More voters met with them in person. The Coalition also retained a land use attorney to prepare for a possible appeal to the GMA Hearings Board if needed.
One Coalition member organization did extensive door to door canvassing in the rural areas of Skagit. They found it didn’t matter if a Trump flag flew above the front walk or a Black Lives Matter bumper sticker graced the car, voters were united in opposition to suburban sprawl in the rural areas under any name. The group reports their canvassers did not encounter any voter in favor of FCCs. Canvassers shared information about how community members could contact their Commissioners. And, that they did.
Stopped In Its Tracks…Almost
To her credit, Commissioner Lisa Janicki did not forget the GMA restrictons on unilateral County action raised by Margery Hite. She continued researching and asking questions of PDS staff. In January 2022, Janicki contacted Ms. Hite by email saying “It appears you were right.” Janicki promptly instructed PDS staff to draft a resolution stating that the FCC proposal be “deferred pending action by the GMA Steering Committee.” All PDS work on the FCC proposal came to a halt.
Action from the GMASC on the FCC proposal appeared unlikely as La Conner, followed by Sedro-Woolley, Mount Vernon, and Anacortes all passed resolutions opposing FCCs due to the work of RGRP allies.
Opponents of FCCs remained concerned. As one member of the RGRP Advisory Group said,
A little bit dead is still partly alive.
And that was true. The proposal was deferred, not denied. And matters were further complicated in 2022 when the developer again submitted the FCC proposal, and the BoCC again included it on the docket. This time, though, the BoCC deferred it immediately, leaving the public and former planners scratching their heads about what this could mean.
Right Growth, Right Place Coalition Keeps Up the Pressure
There appeared to be no slowing of the messages opposing FCCs coming in to Commissioners’ inboxes. Commissioners frequently commented about this in public meetings. In addition, staff changes occurred in PDS which may have brought a different professional perspective into the picture.
In their preparation of recommendations for the 2023 Comp Plan Amendment docket, PDS staff recommended that both deferred FCC proposals be excluded from the docket. At the public hearing held April 24, all comments received by PDS and the BoCC opposed FCCs with the exception of the three speakers directly affiliated with the proposals. Citizen speakers presented 2295 petition signatures for the public record opposing FCCs in addition to their comments.
In closing comments following the public testimony, Commissioner Lisa Janicki was frank about her plan to vote to exclude the FCC proposals. She agreed that Ms. Hite’s assessment was correct, and she saw no way for the BoCC to move forward on FCCs without prior action by the GMASC. Commissioner Peter Browning made no comment on his voting intentions. He thanked the members of the public for coming and participating.
Only Commissioner Ron Wesen, the sole remaining Commissioner from a Skagit farming background, publicly left the door open for considering FCCs. He did acknowledge that he thought now is not the time, though he seemed to attribute the reason for his view to the GMA Steering Committee.
“We have to get the GMA Steering Committee to approve it, and we have not been able to get them to go along with that. But I think at some point in the future we have to consider it.”
On May 8, 2023, the BoCC responded to persistent public opposition as well the legal and procedural obstacles, and voted unanimously to exclude FCCs from the docket.
Vigilance and Creativity
Participants with the Right Growth, Right Place Coalition express determination to continue monitoring the issue with vigilance. This is important. The Skagit Valley’s particular mix of fertile farmland, a fully diversified farm economy, natural beauty, rural communities, and a variety of small cities and towns has become rare in western Washington. To big outside developers, this looks like “empty” land, and county governments are often weak on enforcement of development regulations. This developer can submit another FCC proposal every year if he wishes. The new challenge for the whole community will be to creatively address the urgent housing shortage within the existing Urban Growth Areas, rather than resorting to the false promise and destructive impact of suburban sprawl.
Further Scoop articles touching on Fully Contained Communities: Will fully Contained Communities Solve Skagit’s Affordable Housing Crisis? and Essential Housing for Essential Workers Key to Skagit’s Rural Future
Christie Stewart Stein has farmed just west of Mount Vernon for 25 years. Her volunteer engagement in the community has included working with homeless women, farmworkers and Spanish-speaking immigrants, and aspiring young farmers.