Is it time for the City of Spanaway? Folks unhappy with county rule start cityhood drive

It’s been 17 years since Spanaway activists tried and failed to form a city, but they’re ready to take another shot.

The announcement, a small secret kept for the past few weeks by local historian Marianne Lincoln, emerged at Tuesday’s Pierce County Council meeting. Lincoln and fellow activist Barbara Bowman presented a complete incorporation proposal with all the trimmings: formal notice, a proposed map of the City of Spanaway vetted by the assessor-treasurer’s office, a legal description and a cashier’s check for $100, payable to the county.

The move rolls a procedural ball that might or might not lead to an election in 2020 and potentially create the voter-approved City of Spanaway: a new Pierce County municipality with about 24,000 residents, a government led by an elected council and a city manager running day-to-day operations.

Citing unwelcome density, rising crime and mounting losses of local green space, the activists made their case Tuesday with short speeches.

“We do not like the direction Pierce County has driven our community,” Bowman told council members. “The time has come to take our course away from Pierce County and guide our own destiny.”

Spanaway is a venerable space in unincorporated Pierce County, a prairie hodgepodge of pastures and strip malls, a geographic chip at the northeastern edge of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, long named, rarely defined.

The name derives from a Native American word, “Spanueh,” listed in 19th-century records of the Hudson’s Bay Company, according to Lincoln’s research. For tribes, it was a rich hunting ground.

The area’s more recent history is scruffier. While Spanaway Lake (site of the area’s only park) offers beauty, decades of sprawl-style development paint a less attractive picture.

“It’s OK to fly low over poor Spanaway,” Tacoma alt-rocker Neko Case sang in 2006.

A map produced in 2019 by the Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer depicting a proposed boundary for the incorporation of Spanaway, Washington. Pierce County Assessor-Treasurer

On a map, the proposed city resembles a lower-case letter “Q,” roughly bordered to the north by Military Road South and 152nd Street East, split by Pacific Avenue South. Its narrower southern end — the tail of the “q” — would stop at 208th Street East. The eastern edge would follow 14th Street East, with a few juts here and there.

Lincoln said the map was fine-tuned a few weeks ago. She added that the urgency to incorporate reflects fear of future county planning, coupled with rumored annexation by the City of Tacoma. Spanaway and Parkland sit within the city’s urban growth area, a designation that stems from the state’s Growth Management Act.

“There has been some obvious cage rattling,” Lincoln said. “We heard some things and we decided to act now because annexation would have precedence.”

Council members congratulated the activists after Tuesday’s meeting, Lincoln said, praising their efforts to start a long process that could lead to an incorporation vote, assuming activists clear a series of legal hurdles:

A public hearing before the county’s Boundary Review Board.

A six-month window to gather about 2,400 signatures (representing 10 percent of the population).

A second public hearing before the Boundary Review Board, followed by approval or disapproval of the proposal.

An election with no guarantee of success.

County Council chairman Doug Richardson knows the road. Before winning his seat in 2012, he served on the Lakewood City Council. He remembers the battles and electoral setbacks that culminated in the city’s incorporation on Feb. 28, 1996.

“Our birthday is the 28th,” he said. “We’ll be 23 years old.”

Lakewood formed after four attempts. Cityhood came during a surge of South Sound incorporations that included the City of University Place. Regional growth and worries about unchecked development and local control drove the debates.

“It was contentious,” Richardson said. “The next-to-last time, I think it lost by 300 to 400 votes. I think everybody knew that the next time it was on the ballot it was gonna pass because it was so close. But there was always a ‘no’ committee, people who took the position that it was another layer of government.”

Lincoln also knows how it works. Along with others, she pushed the last Spanaway incorporation campaign in 2002. Voters smacked it down: 79 percent said no.

“Lessons learned,” Lincoln said.

She thinks the outcome might be different this time. For one thing, the 2019 proposal is half the size of the 2002 version, which included Parkland. That led to a separate debate about names. The compromise — a city called Gateway — wasn’t popular.

“Parkland didn’t want the name Spanaway, and Spanaway didn’t want the name Parkland,” Lincoln told council members Tuesday. “And we soon found out 79 percent of the people didn’t want the name Gateway.”

Other factors complicated the 2002 effort, she added. Communities in South Hill and Frederickson were debating incorporation, too, and arguments over boundaries sometimes became combative. Those aspects, combined with more predictable concerns about news taxes and more government, doomed the drive.

That was then. Two decades later, residents are edgier, more worried about uncontrolled development. Their worries surfaced in 2016, when Pierce County planners began to use the catch-all phrase “City of Pierce” to describe the communities of Spanaway, Parkland, Frederickson and South Hill.

“Spanaway is now part of a grand scheme to create urban-level density,” said Bowman. “Pierce County has allowed endless development over our seasonal streams and pastures. Trees have been replaced with apartments and townhomes.”

Lincoln gave the cityhood drive a soft launch this week on her blog and Facebook pages. While she’s seen some push-back from residents concerned about higher taxes and more government (“Bad idea,” one wrote), she also sees comments about rising crime, lack of law enforcement services and too much traffic.

“We’re feeling really good,” she said. “You kind of get those positive signs as you’re going along that this is the right time.”

News Tribune investigative reporter Sean Robinson won the 2016 Ted Natt First Amendment award for ongoing scrutiny of the Pierce County Prosecutor’s office. Since 2000, he has produced award-winning coverage related to criminal justice, government accountability and public disclosure.