Sunday, January 13, 2008

Snohomish County's To-Do List

Snohomish County is catching its breath. Job growth is down from hyper toward normal. The housing market cooled and inventories are up. An opportunity to tidy up after the party.

Following a dizzying growth spurt, and expecting more, the county is settling in to work on long-haul issues that shape the future: the link between land-use decisions, population pressures and affordable housing, and a commitment to agriculture as a sustainable part of the economy.

The topics are not new, of course, but county-level politics have whipsawed regulations and standards back and forth between partisan majorities and grumpy party politics for the past half-dozen years.

The 2007 election allowed 2008 to blossom with the spirit of rapprochement. A nifty word, eh?
County Executive Aaron Reardon breezed to a second four-year term without breaking a sweat. I will take a risk here and go way out on a limb: I suspect he has higher political aspirations. No, really.

The path to wherever his Democratic instincts and opportunities lead him will be shaped by the next four years. His political career is well-launched beyond the Gee-Whiz phase of his youthful ascent to a need to produce demonstrable results that build a case for higher office.

Every new resident drawn to Snohomish County as an attractive place to live, work and raise a family sharpens the tension between affordability, density and open space. The county is living with egregious planning that shoehorned more units onto building sites if transparently easy development requirements were satisfied. No sidewalks, packed roads.

If Reardon can point the County Council toward a longer view of land-using planning and move it away from annual, selective tinkering with the comprehensive plan, that will be a constructive start.

Pursuit of affordable housing has meant helping mobile-home dwellers to buy their homesites, working smarter on density issues, and avoiding past, shameful mistakes. A recent loud "no" from the County Council helped make the point.

Nothing promotes as well as success, especially by solving problems everyone struggles with. Reardon is intent on making Snohomish County a model for leadership on climate change. His enthusiasm for biofuels is a good example. Reardon is moving the county vehicle fleet to a healthy diet, but also working to make Snohomish County an ally in biofuel crops and manufacture.

All that circles back to the county's agricultural economy. Four years ago, as Reardon puts it, there was a recognition the county could not have farms without farmers. They needed economic incentives, which took the county toward promotion of buying local, organic offerings and ethanol production. The county teamed nicely with initiatives by Washington State University's county extension programs.

Now, Reardon says there is renewed recognition the county cannot have farmers without farmland. Efforts to preserve farms through transfer or purchase of development rights have a new burst of energy. For the first time in years, there is a measurable increase in farming activity. The industry adds an estimated $127 million to the county's economy.

A key to success on all these fronts is the prospect of a better working relationship between Reardon and the Snohomish County Council. In the past, there has been a layer of frost separating them, regardless of the weather. Some of it was blatantly partisan; a lot was personalities plus a healthy measure of sensitivity over turf and prerogatives.

The election added two Democrats to the council to cinch an unambiguous Democratic majority. The new chairman, David Somers, a wholly reasonable fellow, expresses a willingness to move ahead with the executive, but quickly adds the effort must cut both ways.

Yes indeed, Reardon explains, he worked closely and successfully with Brian Sullivan and Mike Cooper on complex issues in the Legislature. Topics infinitely more complicated than those facing the ... well, nevermind. Let us be an instrument of peace.

Here is a no-brainer to kick-start work toward common goals:
Going into the 2008 legislative session, the county executive and council can draft and sign a strong, clear resolution of support for a four-year university in Snohomish County.

Lance Dickie's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Opinion at

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