Five school districts sue Pierce County over building restrictions

Five school districts have sued the county over land use decisions that the districts contend will limit their ability to serve students in burgeoning suburban areas of unincorporated Pierce County.

The districts also charge that county rules are limiting certain special programs located in rural areas that attract students from cities and towns.

The lawsuit was filed in Pierce County Superior Court Thursday by the Bethel, Eatonville, Franklin Pierce, Sumner and Tacoma school districts.

The districts contend that a recent county ordinance would prohibit building new schools and forbid expansion of existing school facilities in county-designated rural areas — if those facilities also house students from urban areas. They say the ordinance interferes with the legal duties of school districts to build schools and determine instructional programs.

Pierce County spokeswoman Libby Catalinich said county officials could not comment Friday. She said County Council members and County Executive Pat McCarthy were reviewing the legal issues with county attorneys.

The school districts want the court to invalidate an ordinance enacted in June by the Pierce County Council that governs where schools can be built. The June ordinance, in turn, is a response to a decision by another body, the state Growth Management Hearings Board, which is appointed by the governor to oversee land use decisions under the 1990 Growth Management Act. The act is designed to contain new development inside an urban growth boundary and preserve rural land.

The school districts want the court to invalidate a new county ordinance that governs where schools can be built.

The board, after hearing appeals from county residents opposed to building plans by the Bethel School District, said the county’s land use plans for schools were out of compliance with the act. The June ordinance was an attempt to bring Pierce County into compliance.

The ordinance says new schools or educational facilities built in rural areas should primarily serve a projected rural student population. The same criterion applies to the expansion of existing schools or facilities.

The ordinance does allow for exceptions if school districts can document certain conditions, including an inventory of developable land. But the districts say that would require them to pay for costly studies and create delays. Siting more schools in urban areas will also drive up costs, they say.

The debate stems from plans by the Bethel School District to build a future high school between Frederickson and Graham. The district bought 80 acres of property there, near the intersection of 70th Avenue East and 224th Street East, about five years ago. The parcel is about a mile south of the urban growth boundary line at 208th Street East. The district claims there was no land inside the urban line that was suitable for a high school.

Bethel Superintendent Tom Seigel has long argued that Bethel is no longer rural, but primarily suburban. Yet more than 80 percent of the school district is designated as rural under county rules, according to the lawsuit.

He told the County Council that the new ordinance could impact other school programs, such as those for gifted or special education students. School districts frequently operate those kinds of programs in hubs that draw students from several feeder schools on both sides of the urban-rural line.

“Implementation of these changes to comply with the arbitrary decisions of the Growth Management Hearings Board usurps the authority of school boards,” Seigel told the County Council. “In effect, these changes will drive educational policy, not the school boards.”

Attorney Mary Urback, who represents four of the school districts, said Bethel’s future high school site is next to a subdivision of nearly 500 homes and that more residential building is on the way in the area. Many of those projects were planned before current land use restrictions were imposed, so property owners have vested development rights.

The recent lawsuit also names other school districts that say they could be hurt by the new ordinance.

The Franklin Pierce School District, based in Parkland, says four of its elementary schools — Central Avenue, Collins, Harvard and Midland — could be affected by the ordinance. Instead of expanding those schools to serve students from both urban and rural parts of the district, the district might be required to find urban-zoned land. The Eatonville School District, which plans to locate a districtwide science and technology program on farm property donated to the district, fears that the ordinance would prohibit the program being located in a rural area.

Implementation of these changes to comply with the arbitrary decisions of the Growth Management Hearings Board usurps the authority of school boards

Bethel Superintendent Tom Seigel

The growing Sumner School District also has two existing schools, Lakeridge Middle School and Crestwood Elementary School, in the rural area. It also owns property adjoining the middle school. The district worries that expansion would be prohibited at the two schools, and that future construction on the adjoining property would be limited to serving only students from rural areas.

The Tacoma School District, represented in the lawsuit by school district attorney Shannon McMinimee, states in court papers that its interest relates to the district’s 320-acre Lincoln Tree Farm. The district has owned land along the Mountain Highway (state Route 7), since the 1940s, when it was used for forestry programs. Today, the rural property is being used by urban Tacoma kids for a variety of purposes, including environmental education.

Attorney Urback said that should Tacoma seek to expand or build a new facility on the property, it would need to get county permission. The county would then have to determine if what the school district planned qualified as “rural-dependent activity.” Tacoma says that would infringe on its ability to control school programming.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635, @DebbieCafazzo