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Task force for guidance on rural school sites for Tahoma and Kent School Districts

Officials in the Tahoma and Kent school districts now have a better understanding of what they can do with properties they own outside of the urban growth boundary.

A 30-member School Siting Task Force formed at the behest of King County Executive Dow Constantine completed a report March 30 after working on the issue since December.

The task force developed recommendations for each of the 18 sites affected by changes proposed to countywide planning policies.

For both district, the task force stated in its report that Tahoma find an alternative site within the urban growth boundary but “if no viable alternative site that fits within the district’s financial plans can be expeditiously found, the availability of sewer and an existing school on the site present compelling reasons for development of the site to meet the district’s needs,” the report stated.

“The site does have conservation value and the Task Force recommends that any new development on the site occur adjacent to the existing school so that impacts to the site’s forest cover are minimized,” the report stated.

Tahoma and Kent were among eight schools districts which owned a total of 18 sites — Tahoma has one site, Kent has four — that are near or outside of the urban growth boundary, which was established as part of the growth management act which was intended to protect rural farms and forest from as well as prevent urban sprawl.

In an email interview Tahoma spokesman Kevin Patterson said the task force’s recommendations are an important step forward.

“But the decision goes further by encouraging us to find a site within the urban growth area while still allowing us flexibility to use the Summit-Landsburg Road site for school siting if necessary,” Patterson wrote. “The biggest news to come from our involvement in the process is conversations between (Tahoma Superintendent) Mike Maryanski and King County officials about the potential use of a portion of the Donut Hole property as a high school site. If we are successful, then a new Tahoma High School could be built on property in the Donut Hole, which is inside the urban growth boundary, and the land adjacent to Tahoma Junior High can be preserved as open space.”

Kent’s four sites, meanwhile, were recommended to be held for future development which would have to be consistent with the county’s long-term planning policies, sold or swapped in effort to preserve properties with conservation value.

In September 2011 the county’s Growth Management Planning Council voted to update Countywide Planning Policies, according to the task force’s report, but “could not reach consensus on policies governing the siting of public facilities and services. At issue was whether public schools serving primarily urban populations should be sited in rural areas.”

Part of the county’s VISION 2040 policies included making it standard for schools and other community facilities which primarily served urban populations — residents living in cities within the urban growth boundary — should be allowed in rural areas outside of the UGA. In addition, services such as sewer should not be provided in rural areas.

Since 1992 county policy has allowed public schools to be served by sewer in rural areas if no alternatives were workable. The only sewer option in this case is a tightline sewer, which is designed specifically to serve only a particular facility or place.

Tahoma Junior High is located outside the UGA and had been built with a tightline sewer.

Next to the junior high is 37 acres the district had planned to use for a fifth elementary school.

With the changes proposed in the fall, however, Tahoma officials were concerned they may not be able to build the school.

Couple that with the failure of a construction bond measure in April 2011 and things looked grim for the district’s efforts to resolve overcrowding in its classrooms.

As district officials began evaluating the impacts of the failure of the bond and this proposed change to county policy nearly simultaneously a whole host of creative, out of the box ideas emerged.

During the task force’s work on the issue, Maryanski began taking the conversation in a different direction.

“We asked them if they would consider having some conversations about a potential land swap with their property in the Donut Hole and our property by the junior high,” Maryanski told the Reporter in March. “That came out with that experience of the siting task force and the real passion people brought to that table and our willingness on our part to explore other possibilities. It’s really preliminary thus far.”

King County owns a piece of property within the city limits of Maple Valley. The 156-acre chunk of land  — which is located off Southeast Kent Kangley Road and 228th Stree Southeat — is home to a county transportation maintenance facility which takes up about 13 acres, nine holes of Elk Run Golf Course and a large stand of trees. It is known as the Donut Hole because it is zoned rural, it is considered unincorporated King County yet is wholly surrounded by the city of Maple Valley, a piece of real estate in the heart of the city.

King County has worked to sell the property since 2007 with an eye toward moving its maintenance facility out to Ravensdale.

Maryanski said the Donut Hole would be the ideal place for the district to build a new high school. It would benefit the district as well as the entire community to have Tahoma High, which is currently in unincorporated King County between Maple Valley and Covington, in the city of Maple Valley.

When the change in policy was proposed in the fall, Tahoma was not the only district with questions, the task force’s report stated.

“This potential change in policy was of concern to school districts, many of which owned or had an interest in undeveloped rural properties,” the report said. “While some had acquired their properties before the adoption of the GMA and CPPs, most had not. Those school districts purchasing land after 1992 did so under a regulatory framework that permitted schools in rural areas and that allowed a tightline sewer if needed. At the time, with rising land costs in urban areas and rapid growth, choosing less expensive rural sites seemed the most judicious use of limited taxpayer funds.”

Additionally, many district officials told the task force that it is difficult to find parcels big enough for a school in urban areas, as well as putting schools in locations which are convenient for all students including those in rural areas.

“School districts leaders testified that they do not distinguish between the urban and rural portions of their service areas; their planning takes into account the needs of their districts as a whole,” the report stated.

There were also concerns from residents in rural areas. Issues such as traffic congestion, environmental impact and loss of rural character came up among others.

During the process the task force was provided with information about or opportunities to discuss demographics, school district enrollment projects, costs and funding sources for school construction, public health aspects of school siting and costs for maintenance of county roads.

Next the report will be reviewed by Constantine who will propose countywide policies for the GMPC to consider before it recommends them to the County Council for adoption.

And while the report is encouraging, Patterson said, there is still much work to be done.

“There is a long way to go in this process but the potential benefits to the community are immense,” Patterson wrote. “We are hopeful that we can create a proposal that is acceptable to King County and that we can work with the county and city of Maple Valley to site a new high school in the middle of the Maple Valley community.”

 

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