Counties have oversight within their jurisdiction for criminal justice and health-related issues but maintain complete control over rural areas and how rural and urban areas interact. In Kittitas County, that oversight falls to our County Commissioners. My question is, why do our commissioners have no clear definition of “rural” and its place within our county?
Through the last three Comprehensive Plan (a state-mandated visioning document) updates, this question has been asked, discussed, and studied but doesn’t contain anything that clearly defines our rural areas or what we as citizens can expect from our rural lands. What we do know is that that our rural parcels are highly sought out by the real estate market.
So, our community needs to define what rural means to us and how it will be part of our identity. If you ask most people what rural means, you will get a variation of the answer “not King County.” I agree, and we must start having a serious conversation about growth, our rural real estate market, uses within rural zones, and how to implement smart policies and planning – in concert with our partners in the cities.
Though the Upper County is topographically different than the Lower County, we share many common issues and concerns. We must bridge the perceived divide by finding common goals while addressing area-specific issues as they arise. The Lower County has a historically agriculture-driven economy, while the Upper County has yet to find a clear direction for its future. Our past included mining of coal resources and a timber-based economy – both of which are long gone. Tourism has been targeted to fill the void, but without a clear picture of what that will look like, we will not reach our full potential.
More to the point, our county code is and will continue to be an obstacle to rural development simply because we have no clear idea of how our rural zones fit into the overall county plan. The big question is how best to proceed so that “rural” areas can contribute to our overall county economy.
Some meaningful first steps to take are:
- Reviewing the county code – especially as it relates to uses allowed on rural lands. Currently, the code provides for allowed uses; I suggest this be evaluated and flipped to uses not allowed within rural zones. This simple, yet important, adjustment changes the perception toward all uses are accepted with identified specific restrictions.
- Finding our definition of rural. When asked what rural is, most cannot answer but can offer what they hope will not become a reality. A better way forward might be to define elements of what rural is not. Most agree with the limited exception that 25 MPH zones are not rural. Likewise, a municipal water and sewer system would not represent rural. We might have better success in determining what rural isn’t over trying to define what it is.
- We need to understand how our rural communities can and will support the county’s economy. This again will require reviewing our county code to make sure that economic uses are not prohibited unless our community agrees that it should be prohibited.
- County code is currently very limiting on what businesses can operate within rural zones and activities that can be conducted in rural areas. Immediately changing code to allow for business operations on rural parcels without “allowed use” restrictions, conditional use permits, or other blanket regulations
- Addressing the five-acre zoning requirement. In some areas, municipal water service areas encompass rural parcels making them perfect candidates for building more housing near urban areas. Housing projects – especially affordable housing – cannot be achieved on large parcel properties. These restrictions need to be reviewed and adjusted which is achievable under current GMA standards.