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Sammamish, like many suburban Seattle cities, gripped by development fight as region’s population booms

Sammamish, like many suburban Seattle cities, gripped by development fight as region’s population booms

SAMMAMISH — Growth and development have long driven heated community and political debates on the plateau stretching from Lake Sammamish to the Cascade foothills.

“Almost everyone shared a basic assumption about the new city: ‘Growth is bad, roads are good,’” read a Seattle Times report from a Sammamish City Council candidates debate. The year was 1999.

Cut to 2021 and it may feel like not much has changed. 

Sammamish, one of the wealthiest cities in the nation, is mired in ongoing litigation about whether it is wrongfully blocking new commercial space, apartments and townhomes in a partially developed area known as Town Center.

The debate that rages in Facebook groups and local politics can feel like bloodsport. The city’s former mayor is battling Sammamish in court, and one City Council member this year abruptly resigned over the issue. The themes echo the past: rapid growth and concerns about lagging infrastructure such as sewers, schools and roads.

This time, the debate is playing out against the stark backdrop of climate change.

“We’re all going to have to face the facts that our children and our grandchildren are not going to be able to continue to live the suburban lifestyles we have without dire environmental and climate consequences,” said Pam Stuart, a member of the Sammamish City Council.

“We have to make changes to how we live,” Stuart said. “One has to ask oneself: Can we do that if we continue to build large single-family homes on cul de sacs that require cars?”

A Sammamish neighborhood of single-family homes is seen from the air, about 2 miles north of a controversial planned mixed-use development. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

As Washington prepares for its next wave of growth — 1.5 million people and 1.1 million jobs predicted in the next 30 years — the fight in Sammamish offers a case study in the dicey politics and delay tactics that can meet efforts to build denser housing.

Adopted three decades ago, the Growth Management Act requires certain cities and counties to plan for population growth and lays out goals including encouraging affordable housing. Sammamish lies inside King County’s area designated for urban growth, which stretches from Seattle north to Shoreline, south to Auburn and east to Sammamish and an area near North Bend. The city’s incorporation in the 1990s was a reaction to the early days of growth.

Stuart, who supports building more housing, is a minority voice on the council. Skeptics of new development say the city of 67,000 risks being overburdened without needed infrastructure such as road improvements.

“What we’re saying is we’re going to try to figure out our own house here, get it in order,” said Deputy Mayor Christie Malchow during a council meeting last fall about county growth planning. (Malchow and other council members declined interview requests, citing ongoing litigation.)

“And then if we do,” Malchow said, “we can build.”

“Sammamish is not quiet anymore”

When Sarah Hawes Kimsey hears her fellow Sammamish residents’ worries about traffic, crowded schools and protecting the area’s natural beauty, “I say, I think growth is going to happen whether we want it to or not,” she said.

“The best thing to do is get in front of it … We can’t just slam the door behind the most recent people to move here,” said Kimsey, who previously worked for the city and then ran a blog about Sammamish politics.

Kimsey said she lost her Sammamish condo to foreclosure after the 2008 market crash and struggled to find a rental. “We need more options,” she said.

City plans for the Town Center, adopted in 2008, envision a “wedding cake”: Taller development at the center, tapering out toward the edges. 

Today, two upscale apartment complexes and several commercial buildings are already finished and in use, but a series of actions at City Hall have blocked the next phase. Developers plan commercial space, 300 apartments and 48 townhomes. Sammamish is roughly 86% single-family homes and the median home price is just more than $1 million.

The existing mixed-use Sammamish Village is part of a planned development known as Town Center, which will eventually include apartments. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

In 2019, the city council adopted new rules governing what’s known as traffic concurrency, meant to ensure local roads keep up with growth. Don Gerend, a former Sammamish mayor and City Council member, challenged the move, accusing the city of using unrealistic traffic rules to block development. As that argument wound through a state hearings board, the city passed a series of development moratoriums. 

Throughout 2020 and 2021, the Growth Management Hearings Board found the city out of compliance with the GMA three times. At one point, the board asked Gov. Jay Inslee to withhold tax dollars from Sammamish.

Under the threat of sanctions, the City Council repealed its most recent moratorium on development. 

But the fight is likely to continue. Sammamish has asked for review by the Court of Appeals, and the City Council approved spending for ongoing legal expenses.

Gerend has looked on in frustration. He sees the project as a place where empty-nesters could downsize and stay in town.

“They’re really not seeing the great vision for the future of this city,” he said of the current council. “Basically, they’d like to shut the doors to the city.”

Jason Ritchie didn’t wait for his term to end. The former councilmember clashed with his colleagues over the Town Center and resigned in January. He says the opposition reflects “a sense of entitlement.”

“What you have here is people who are very opposed to the Town Center and the type of housing they think is going to attract the wrong people,” Ritchie said.

Beyond City Hall, some residents aren’t aware of the particulars of the proposal but are anxious about more development.

Ahmed Elmetwally said he moved to Sammamish after living in Seattle, Bellevue and Kirkland because he was looking for a more residential feel to raise his kids. 

“If people want to live in condos, they can live closer to the city,” said Elmetwally, who works in IT.

While Elmetwally said he worries growth has happened too quickly, he said he wouldn’t necessarily oppose more houses or townhomes developed at a slower pace. Apartment buildings are another question.

“I totally disagree,” he said. “I feel it’s actually changing how Sammamish used to look, changing it from a more residential area to more a city area.”

Already, the area is feeling busier and more clogged with traffic, he said. “Sammamish is not quiet anymore,” Elmetwally said.

Jane Simmons has mixed feelings. 

Simmons said she moved to Sammamish for a small-town feel but has struggled to find a house she and her husband can afford.

“All the houses seem to be in the million-dollar range,” said Simmons, who works as a mountain bike instructor and cares for her 2-year-old son. (Both Elmetwally and Simmons said they weren’t familiar with the specifics of the Town Center proposal, but spoke about growth generally.)

Simmons said she wishes there were more lower-cost housing but is wary of new development.

“With the population getting larger, and all the commercial buildings getting put in, I don’t love that. I kind of like the way Sammamish is,” she said.

“There’s already a lot of people everywhere. Somehow it feels like Sammamish doesn’t have quite as many,” Simmons said. “So I’d like to keep it that way. But I don’t want to keep anybody else from living in Sammamish and enjoying it as well.”

Next phase of growth

Bracing for population growth, city and county governments all over the region are facing similar questions.

King County is estimated to need another 418,000 units of housing in the next 30 years. By 2050, the region’s population will be “older and more diverse, with smaller households than today,” driving a need for more housing, according to the Puget Sound Regional Council.

Across King County in recent years, fewer than one housing unit has been created for every new household, by one estimate.

The shortage drives up prices and pushes people to live farther away. Wealth becomes concentrated. 

Some cities have absorbed more growth than others. The number of housing units in Seattle climbed 23% from 2008 to 2017, according to King County. Issaquah, Newcastle and Snoqualmie each increased their housing supply by 20% or more. During the same time, Sammamish’s housing supply increased by 10%.

Much of the region’s new housing is market rate and still out of reach for many. The Town Center proposal, for example, will be mostly market rate with an expected 80 units for people making 80% of area median income, or about $65,000 for one person.

“Multifamily housing on its own is not a guarantee of affordability,” said Alex Brennan, executive director at the pro-density nonprofit Futurewise. But, he added, “without the opportunity to have some type of multifamily development, you’re not going to be able to get more affordable housing options.”