The Bethel School District is challenging a state ruling that blocks the district from building a high school on an 80-acre site it owns in the Graham area.
The school district calls its plan “land banking” for future growth and says the proposed school – its fourth comprehensive high school – wouldn’t be built for another 15 to 20 years.
The district says the Growth Management Hearings Board erred last month in its decision that thwarted a land-use change allowing for a new high school. The district asked the board to reconsider its ruling and allow the school.
The hearings board said it will decide by Aug. 20.
In a complex ruling, the hearings board said the school would be located on a rural site serving urban students in violation of community plans and policies for Pierce County.
“The Graham community is largely rural, and the Graham community plan describes steps to be taken to protect rural character and enhance the rural lifestyle,” the board said.
The board also said planning policies and community plans “require the county to engage with school districts in planning for school locations.”
“It is not enough to say the county will impose conditions on a school district’s subsequent permit application,” the ruling continued.
Last October, the Pierce County Council amended it comprehensive plan, redesignating 117 acres in the Graham area from rural farm to rural residential. Schools are not permitted in the rural farm designation but are allowed in rural residential areas.
Bethel School District and Rainier View Christian Church, which has its Graham campus on the other portion of the 117 acres, made the request.
Bethel, the third-largest school district in Pierce County, provides education for more than 17,700 students in the growing Spanaway, Graham and Frederickson areas.
Six area residents challenged the county’s decision. They contended the change violated provisions of the state’s Growth Management Act to protect rural character, according to the board’s decision.
The board said the county did not violate its comprehensive plan by redesignating the land. However, it ruled that permitting a school in a rural location to serve urban students violated not only other county policies and community plans but also the Puget Sound Regional Council’s Vision 2040 plan. As a result, the board’s ruling blocked the land-use change to rural residential and the potential school.
“This was the first time the Growth Management Board had deferred to multi-county policies when reviewing a case,” district spokeswoman Krista Carlson said. The board distinguished between school districts and other property owners in the rural residential designation to deny the district’s request, she said.
Bethel filed for reconsideration “to both exercise and preserve our legal rights as property owners,” Carlson said.
Bethel Superintendent Tom Seigel declined comment. Mary Urback, the district’s attorney, did not return phone calls.
Jim Halmo, one of the six petitioners concerned about suburban sprawl, said the board determined the county failed to work with the school district to locate the school within the urban growth area. “The county has a responsibility to make sure these things are sited properly,” said Halmo, a Graham resident.
Deputy prosecutor Pete Philley said the county is concerned the growth board is asking it to coordinate where districts should locate a school before they purchase property.
Pierce County supported the school district in its reconsideration request.
Philley said the hearings board is “concerned about having a large school campus in a rural area that might drive urban growth in an area that’s not supposed to have it.”
But those issues – what the district would build and who it would serve – could be addressed later through the permitting process, which requires a hearings examiner, Philley said.
“They get to buy wherever they want,” Philley said. “Until they decide whether they want to build on it, it’s really none of our business where they purchase property.”firstname.lastname@example.org 253-597-8647 blog.thenewstribune.com/street @TNTstevemaynard