Co-op Blog

FCCs: Could They Forever Change Our Rural Valley?

In the midst of a difficult agricultural year of drought and heat, many local farmers have carved out time to advocate for the future of farming in Skagit Valley. Others in the valley have joined in, asking for thoughtful future growth, in harmony with decades of planning agreements. A proposal to create Fully Contained Communities (FCCs) in Skagit County sparked a campaign in opposition, called Right Growth, Right Place: FCCs are Not the Answer. Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland is organizing and acting as the fiscal agent for the campaign, an alliance of concerned citizens and organizations, including, among others, SPF, the Skagit County Farm Bureau, Evergreen Islands, Indivisible and Home Rule Skagit.

What set off the alarm bells? Bill Sygitowicz, a developer with a group named Skagit Partners, LLC, but based in Whatcom County, proposed to the Skagit County Commissioners that they amend our County Comprehensive Plan—those polices that determine how and where growth happens in the County— to allow FCCs to be built in Skagit Valley. The developer, who has tried, and failed, multiple times to gain County approval to build a large subdivision (called Avalon) in the countryside north of Burlington, changed tactics in 2021. He backed off of asking for permission for a specific development and instead proposed amending the County’s Comprehensive Plan to generally allow the building of large developments on rural lands. To the disappointment of hundreds of individuals and citizen groups who mobilized with little notice to submit opposing comments, the County Commissioners agreed to consider his proposal and are now examining whether or not to allow FCCs.

What is an FCC?

“Fully Contained Communities” are dense communities of housing, located in rural areas, outside of existing urban growth areas. Although the name suggests an inclusive, self-sufficient village, opponents find this misleading. Writing in the Skagit Scoop, Margery Hite, former lawyer for county and city governments, summarizes the characteristics of an FCC: “An FCC is a housing development, designed and constructed by private developers, made up of hundreds or even thousands of houses and apartments, with supporting commercial building space, in what is now the countryside. . . An FCC is not part of a city or town . . [it looks] like a city, [but] without a corresponding government to provide police, fire, road repair, drainage upgrades, or any of the maintenance and repair services that make a city livable. Without city government, the burden of paying for those services will fall to County taxpayers.” “To the eye,” she adds, “an FCC looks like a huge subdivision.” For scale, the current proposal projects a development of over 3,600 people (almost four times the population of La Conner). Only a few counties in Washington State have experimented with creating FCCs. In two of these counties, Snohomish and King, negative experiences led both to ban any future FCCs.

Conflicts with Existing Policies

When Washington State passed the Growth Management Act in the 1990s, the goal was to mandate growth planning and control sprawl. Decades later, a web of policies and recommendations at the city and county level, as well as from advisory groups, delineate how growth should happen in Skagit County. Among these are the Countywide Planning Polices (CPPs), which are mutually agreed to by both the County and the local municipalities of Burlington, Mount Vernon, Anacortes, Sedro-Woolley, and La Conner. These policies create a county-wide framework guiding how each government writes its own Comprehensive Plan.

It is easy to get tangled in a morass of agencies and acronyms here, but for now, the crucial part is this: all of these policies and guidelines, dating back to the state Growth Management Act, have consistently opposed the creation of FCCs. Kirk Johnson was the senior planner for long-range planning in Skagit County, working for the County from 1998 to 2017. He worked closely with County Commissioners, the planning commission, and the public on proposed amendments to the County Comprehensive Plan, development regulations, zoning, and land use. According to Mr. Johnson, the County does not have the authority to unilaterally change the Comprehensive Plan. Mr. Johnson has written that the County can’t “amend its comprehensive plan and development regulations in a manner inconsistent with the regionally adopted CPPs.” He states that pursuing this course is “a waste of time and resources because it will ultimately be found non-compliant and overturned.”

What is the County’s Position?

Peter Gill, current Long Range Planning Manager for Skagit County, emphasizes that the idea to build FCCs does not originate with the County, but with the developer’s proposal, “It is a petition brought to the county by a developer that is interested in building a new community. The important part of this is that what we are doing now is more process—it’s not project-based. This is about starting a dialogue about how to grow.”

The argument for FCCs is the need for housing and the claim that cities can’t or won’t provide housing within existing urban growth areas. Says Mr. Gill, “There is a recognition that a housing problem exists in Skagit County, so this underlying need is one of the things that is driving it from the proponents’ point of view. That is also why the county is interested in discussing it.”

The County Comprehensive Plan calls for 20% of the population growth to be in rural areas while 80% should be in urban growth areas. Mr. Gill states, “We are closer to 30% of growth in the rural areas. When you step back, you can see that the growth is happening. Rural locations are getting population. It’s happening one way or another. Under this proposal, we would be looking at the polices by which the County would allow a new community to be developed.”

What Farmers Worry About: Drainage, Traffic, and a Farming Legacy

The Co-op’s commitment to sustainable food production and supporting local suppliers prompts us to ask: why do FCCs worry the local farming community? John Anderson, President of the Board of Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, explains why SPF views FCCs as an urgent issue, “SPF’s reason for being is to advocate for farmland and for the continued economic viability of farmers in our valley. As farmers we have two main concerns: traffic and drainage.” Mr. Anderson points out, “Farmers deal with traffic—they need to be able to move equipment and produce in a timely fashion. Dairy and crop farmers need to use our roads, and delays of increasing traffic are costly. Concentrating the amount of people in an FCC in a rural area would adversely affect neighboring farms.”

Drainage is one of the most worrisome aspects of an FCC. Says Mr. Anderson, “People may not think about it, but drainage is vital to the health of local agriculture. We have drainage districts set up for the past century for this. It is our fear that our existing systems aren’t able to handle something as concentrated as drainage from proposed FCCs. We have concerns about dealing with the runoff from so much impervious surface.” Uncontrolled runoff can lead to flooding, soil deterioration, erosion, and pollution.

The Skagit County Drainage and Irrigation Districts Consortium was formed in Skagit County in the late 1800s and represents 56,000 acres. Its elected commissioners work to ensure drainage and irrigation infrastructure is maintained. In a letter to the County Commissioners, the Consortium detailed their concerns about the effects of high density FCCs on drainage infrastructure and landowners downstream. Says Executive Director Jenna Friebel, “As an area is developed, we get more and more runoff, but little capacity to handle it. We have ditches that were built 120 years ago to serve farm drainage that were never intended to manage urban storm water.”

Terry Sapp is a third generation farmer east of Sedro-Woolley, and part of the North Cascade Meat Producer’s Cooperative. He works to sustain farming for future generations in Skagit County, and sees careful decisions about population growth and land use as key to farming’s viability: “The argument that we should put forward as a community is that we make our cities and villages better and keep our rural county agriculture. We stop building in the country and make our cities more vital, more civic, more enjoyable urban centers rather than scattering population in semi-dense arrangements out about the landscape.” And he adds, ”If people think that those who are farmers argue to keep agriculture sustainable for their personal benefit, I would alert them to the fact that it would be far more profitable to sell the land for development. We soldier on in part to preserve a resource.”

Who Assumes the Costs and Burdens of FCCs?

FCCs are large developments the size of towns, without the structure and services—or the tax base—of a town to support them. Who, or what, will assume the costs of services?

Kirk Johnson speaks for a number of opponents when he states, “[We don’t] support policies that drain cities of their tax base and place unfunded demands on the County’s rural infrastructure.” Unfunded demands include road repair and upkeep, law enforcement, and, of course, upgrades and maintenance for drainage and storm runoff. Opponents point to other needs as well—like schools and firefighting capabilities—that will need to be supported. Says Mr. Johnson, “It is hard to accurately allocate and then recoup the costs of a new development. Do existing residents pay for new growth?”

Will FCCs Provide “Affordable” Housing?

Few would deny the need for more housing in Skagit County. One major question that arises is what kind of housing do we need, and will FCCs supply it? The main argument here for opponents to FCCs is that housing will most likely serve those with higher incomes, and not those with Skagit’s median income of $67,000 for a household. Opponents fear that instead of providing homes for those already living and working in Skagit County, high value homes in an FCC might more likely attract those who currently live and work outside Skagit, making the FCC a bedroom community for large cities on the I-5 corridor.

The developer’s proposal lists five other FCCs in Washington, one of which he says has “failed.” Average home prices in Pierce County’s Tehalah community are $599,525. In King County FCCs, the averages range from $899,000 to $970,000. FCCs are supposed to include a portion of housing that is “affordable”, but opponents remain skeptical about how, or if, that will work. They also question whether it makes sense to site housing for lower income residents in areas far from necessary services, job opportunities, and mass transit.

Arguing for the Heart of Skagit Valley

Created by the Skagit Valley Chamber Executive Director’s Association and funded by Skagit County, the website visitskagitvalley.com provides a visual feast of this valley so many love. One of its short videos, Find Your Flow, takes us along the Skagit River— from mountain waters, through forests, across farming fields, past towns and down to the Salish Sea. Watching it, I yearn to visit the Skagit Valley. And I already live here.

We know the farmlands, forests, and waters pictured are economic resources—but from another perspective, we can see how they are an additional type of resource for both those who reside here and those who visit—they ground us, they feed us, they provide us not only livelihood, but also refuge. Even while we have grown, we have maintained the character and integrity of our fields of tulips, potatoes, and berries; our sapphire and jade lakes; our forests of tall trees and wild creatures; and a river that tumbles and rushes, designated as “wild and scenic.”

At least 80% of this video celebrates the valley’s wild and rural beauty and opportunities for enjoying that beauty. Notably absent from this idyllic view of a= valley that nourishes its residents and attracts visitors is suburban sprawl in the countryside. It is this sprawl and an ensuing corrosive impact on the County’s rural identity that opponents of FCCs fear.

Next Steps

Of the approximately 500 comments submitted before the County’s initial decision, fewer than ten favored FCCs. The short lead time for written comments and awkward Monday morning schedule for oral comments, along with the County’s seeming lack of response to the overwhelming opposition, leave some people worried about the County’s responsiveness and transparency going forward.

County planner Peter Gill says the county is assessing whether or not they will do an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). They plan to release that decision in October. Either way, there will be “multiple ways for the public to weigh in during the coming months. The outreach will be far different than any other petition that goes in front the Commission, based on the vast number of comments and the interest.”

The Right Growth, Right Place alliance intends to do extensive public education on the issue and to collect petition signatures in opposition to FCCs. FCC opponents believe we need to increase efforts to find solutions with and within our cities. One housing suggestion involves the revitalization and rebuilding of the many vacant commercial sites and mall buildings in the Valley, which were themselves often built on paved-over farmland.

Says Kirk Johnson, “I grew up in the Bay Area in San Francisco—a place that was a shopping mall is now residential. It is possible for a community and developers to reimagine a dead mall area. It has happened in Portland and Vancouver. The problem is economic—when do we reach a tipping point where developers are willing and interested to make it happen?”

Peter Gill states, “The Cascade Mall is an area where we might be able to get some significant growth. That would be part of the EIS process—alternative analyses of where we might be able to put growth.”

Finally, Are We Factoring in Climate Change?

As we come off a season of fire, drought, and record heat, it seems crucial to evaluate every growth policy decision for its environmental impact, and especially how it might either worsen or mitigate climate change effects. Opponents of FCCs point to some of the many ways FCCs are incompatible with wise climate change response: Contributing to drainage issues that will increase runoff and flooding; removing trees and green space that lessen essential absorption of carbon dioxide; promoting a commuter culture of single family cars; favoring large single family homes on rural acreage over multi-family houses.

In trying to solve our housing issues, paving a way for developers to construct FCCs may be like paving over farmland: a permanent action leading to heartache down the road.

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By: Co-op Staff

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