Officials in the Bethel School District think a pasture in the Graham area would be the perfect spot to build a new high school.
The land is smack in the middle of the fast-growing school district, they say — and, best of all, they already own it.
But Bethel can’t build a school there because of what Superintendent Tom Seigel calls “an arbitrary line”: Pierce County’s urban growth area boundary, which stops about a mile north of the 80-acre property.
Under the state’s anti-sprawl Growth Management Act, most counties must limit development to designated urban growth areas, which are supposed to be concentrated around transportation services, public infrastructure, retail shops and job centers.
The law discourages the construction of schools and other government facilities outside of those areas, and many jurisdictions don’t extend utility services outside those boundaries, either.
Yet some school officials throughout the state say the law is getting in the way of them building the schools they need to accommodate their growing student populations.
As a state, we have put ourselves in a box about the way we can allow growth. … The process by which we do site schools is very onerous.
State Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, on how Washington’s Growth Management Act affects school districts
They are asking the state to tweak the Growth Management Act to allow them to build schools outside urban growth boundaries — a privilege already granted to “essential public facilities,” such as prisons and sewer treatment plants.
Senate Bill 6426 would apply to Pierce, Grant, Franklin and Benton counties, allowing schools there to be considered essential public facilities so they can be built outside of urban growth areas, too.
“As a state, we have put ourselves in a box about the way we can allow growth,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, who supports the legislation.
“This is an opportunity for us to acknowledge that we don’t have enough schools sited, and the process by which we do site schools is very onerous.”
Some, however, view the proposal as a first step toward getting rid of the Growth Management Act, which they say could lead to uncontrolled sprawl that could threaten farmland and open spaces.
To State Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, the bill raises a major question: If you let schools locate and receive utility services outside urban growth areas, “then, how can you turn down other people?”
“That’s what this is all about,” Appleton said.
OVERCROWDED SCHOOLS A CONCERN
School officials say the law puts them in a bind: Their districts are growing fast, and they need new schools to accommodate all of the new students.
In Bethel’s case, the district’s three high schools already are overcrowded, and officials know they’ll need to build a new one soon.
At Graham-Kapowsin High School in Graham, 1,950 students attend classes in a building designed for 1,400. The overcrowding causes frequent standing-room-only situations in the cafeteria and recurring traffic jams at a door leading to 18 portable classrooms outside.
The district’s other two high schools also are over capacity by 250 students each, and the district expects to gain another 3,000 students within the next decade.
“We know we have more kids coming. We know we need to have one more school,” said Seigel, the Bethel superintendent. “These sites really can’t handle any more kids — they’re not large enough.”
Seigel said the property the district bought to build a new high school is suburban, not rural. It’s bordered by a development of 400 homes, plus a fire station, a church and an elementary school across the street, he said.
We know we need to have one more school. These sites really can’t handle any more kids — they’re not large enough.
Tom Seigel, superintendent of the Bethel School District
At the time the district bought it, there wasn’t any available land within the urban growth boundary that was large enough for a new high school, Seigel said.
“If there was, we would have bought it,” he said.
Other school district officials shared similar stories this month during a public hearing on SB 6426, which is sponsored by Sen. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma.
Rick Schulte, the superintendent of the Richland School District, said Richland is looking to build a new high school directly adjacent to an existing middle school, but that land is outside the urban growth boundary and therefore can’t get utility service.
While school districts can ask county planning commissions to alter the boundaries of urban growth areas, Schulte said that process is often long and arduous.
“We’re on a fast timeline,” Schulte said. “The process for changing urban growth area boundaries is a longer process — too long for us in order to be able to purchase the land today, which is what we need to do, and begin planning for the construction of the new school.”
WORRIES ABOUT UNCONTROLLED DEVELOPMENT
Opponents argue that building schools outside the urban growth area will undermine the purpose of the Growth Management Act by encouraging people to move into rural areas, creating more sprawl and traffic congestion.
Bryce Yadon of Futurewise, a Seattle-based group that advocates protecting farmland and managing growth, said school districts need to work with local counties and cities to change development regulations if they want to build schools in outlying areas.
He said building schools outside urban growth areas increases the cost of student transportation, roads and other services needed to support those facilities.
It also threatens farmland in rural areas by encouraging more housing developments there, he said.
“Maybe the school thinks the land is cheaper, but we’re going to pay for that in infrastructure costs, or in busing costs,” Yadon said.
The Growth Management act is 26 years old. It needs to be tweaked. But I don’t think people want sprawl.
State Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, on amending the state’s anti-sprawl law passed in 1990
Although the school-siting bill cleared the Republican-controlled state Senate on a 35-13 vote, it has run into opposition in the state House, which has a slim Democratic majority.
Appleton, the chairwoman of the House Local Government Committee, declined to give the bill a hearing in her committee.
She said she sees the legislation as a move to dismantle the Growth Management Act, which is something she cannot support. She described the topic as too complicated to tackle during the Legislature’s short 60-day session this year.
Instead, Appleton said she plans to convene three work sessions on school siting issues during the coming year, and try to find solutions that wouldn’t gut the law.
“The Growth Management Act is 26 years old. It needs to be tweaked,” Appleton said. “But I don’t think people want sprawl.”