Islanders talk density, grocery zoning at comprehensive plan meeting

The event drew an audience of about 65 people to learn and comment on the complicated plan process.

Islanders called for more flexible affordable housing density incentives and changes to allow a new grocery store on Vashon’s north end during a county comprehensive plan meeting April 4 at Vashon Center for the Arts.

Hosted by the King County Council Local Services and Land Use Committee, the event drew an audience of about 65 people to learn and comment on the complicated comprehensive plan process. The final comprehensive plan will set the stage for where and how homes, businesses and other spaces are built on Vashon-Maury Island.

Many commenters offered support to a zoning law change which would allow the historic Vashon-Maury Grange Hall by the north-end ferry dock to become a grocery store.

Nestled just a short walk from the north end Park & Ride, the Grange Hall could provide a convenient place for north-end residents to shop when getting off the ferry, and a community gathering place, speakers said.

Islanders also urged the county to provide more flexible incentives for developers of market-rate housing to build more units than zoning ordinarily allows on the island. The county’s current proposal would provide such “density bonuses” only for projects that are 100 percent affordable.

Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda, Jorge L. Barón, Claudia Balducci and Sarah Perry attended the meeting.

The Comprehensive Plan is the guiding policy document for the county, and it must comply with the state’s Growth Management Act — the essential guiding law for land use in Washington State that seeks to prevent sprawl and encourage cities and counties to plan for growth intelligently and carefully.

Affordable housing and density

County officials have said that a proposal to make affordable housing density bonuses incumbent on 100% affordability came from islander feedback.

On April 4, they heard differently. Spokespeople from two major island organizations denounced the idea.

Community council member Ben Carr, who spoke alongside council president Diane Emerson, opposed the idea of removing the county’s 2017 “special district overlay” — which granted density incentives — while retaining the 100% affordability requirement, which Carr said “has a perverse disincentive (against) creating affordable housing.”

“It’s a terrible idea,” Carr said.

It would mean that “for any developer, they’re not going to build here,” he said. “It doesn’t make financial sense. And so we get less affordable housing.”

Chamber of Commerce Director Amy Drayer echoed those thoughts on the 100% requirement: “(It) does not make sense for Vashon. We strongly oppose that.”

Requiring 100% affordable units is a similar approach to the zoning incentives adopted by King County in 2017 to encourage more affordable housing in Vashon Town — incentives which flopped. (The current proposal would, however, apply to more properties than the 2017 incentives, and most of those properties would be eligible for higher potential densities.)

The idea was to give housing developers the right to build with more density than the zoning normally allowed, if 100% of the units in their projects were affordable.

But after nearly six years, the voluntary incentives didn’t result in a single permit application for one house, condo or apartment, the Department of Local Services (DLS) said in a report. Furthermore, those 2017 bonuses never even applied to a large chunk of Vashon Town, because the bonuses in certain areas were superseded by another regulation, dating back to 1996, that allowed housing in “mixed-use” projects — usually retail with residential — but limited it to eight units per acre.

(Two affordable housing projects, Island Center Homes and Creekside Village, now underway on the island, were not made possible by the 2017 plan.)

That Local Services report determined that the provisions were too inflexible. Gating the benefits behind a binary, all-or-nothing requirement that 100% of the units in a project to be affordable turned away private developers who could otherwise use density bonuses to develop mixed properties with both market rate and affordable units, the report said.

So for the new comprehensive plan, county planners last summer proposed replacing those incentives with a county-wide “inclusionary housing” program. It would offer density bonuses too, but in a more flexible way; the more affordable units in the project, the more dense the project could be.

For instance, a rental development at 50% AMI would allow 200% base density if 100% of the units were affordable, 150% base density if at least 20% of the units were affordable, and 125% density if at least 7% of the units were affordable.

It also proposed letting developers pay a fee-in-lieu of building some affordable units in order to receive the density bonuses, with that fee money supporting affordable housing efforts elsewhere.

Recent revisions proposed by King County Executive Dow Constantine this winter would roll back those two changes. (Dow’s revisions comprise the official comprehensive plan proposal from the executive branch.)

Under Dow’s red ink, in Vashon Town, the density bonuses would only be given to projects with 100% affordable units. (Density bonuses for market-rate developers would remain in other unincorporated areas where the density bonuses are proposed in King County.) His changes also dropped the provision to allow market-rate developers to pay fee-in-lieu.

A county document said the change to require 100% affordable units would “ensure better compatibility with existing development” and “support the most critical housing needs, in response to public input.”

The 2024 Comprehensive Plan could still increase development with the Executive’s revisions.

Other proposals in the plan included changing the maximum height limit from two stories to 35 feet, which could conceivably allow three-story buildings, and boosting both the “base density” — the density allowed before any bonuses are applied — and the maximum density for some properties, including mixed-use housing.

Another proposal would add farmers markets and remove recreational cannabis producers from the allowed uses on parcels at the north and south end of town.

David Vogel is chair of the Vashon Town Plan committee, which is made up of developers, Vashon HouseHold members and other islanders. The committee has drafted its own proposed amendments to the comprehensive plan.

It’s hard to say whether the county’s original 2017 approach was a failure, Vogel said, pointing to a 26-year moratorium on new water shares, which included the town core, that only ended last year.

“It couldn’t have worked, given the water shortage,” he said.

Nonetheless, the 100% requirement is problematic because developers can’t build entirely affordable housing without significant subsidy, Vogel said. So the committee’s recommendation is to include those flexible incentives for market-rate development, plus some other Vashon-minded tweaks — such as allowing buildings with fewer than nine units to benefit, and providing bonuses for a wider (and somewhat higher) range of income earning tenants, given the eye-popping costs of housing on the island.

The committee also suggests that the height maximum be changed to three stories, rather than 35 feet — which Vogel said is often insufficient to fit three stories in a building.

The proposals will next go to the general membership of the community council, Vogel said.

Last summer, the Community Council unanimously approved a resolution opposing the use of in-lieu fees. That position remains unchanged, Vogel said.

Grocerizing the Grange

A proposed change to zoning law could pave the way for a new grocery store on Vashon’s northern tip at the historic Grange Hall.

The change doesn’t involve rezoning the property on which the Grange sits. Instead, the county is proposing to modify what’s allowed under the Grange’s current zoning, which is “RA-5,” or rural.

Food stores aren’t allowed currently on rural-zoned properties, but in the proposed plan, the county proposes to permit them — but only in former Grange halls which are also historic landmarks.

The surgically-specific change would “support creative reuse and associated preservation of otherwise unused grange halls in a manner that serves the local community,” according to a summary document from the county’s comprehensive plan page.

Jennifer Potter, who owns the Grange Hall and previously worked as the steward of the hall, said the project would reinvigorate a historic building on the island and create a community space, family-owned business and a source of food for the community all in one.

That transformation is “a fantastic idea” that would create a walkable community space for the island’s north end, one speaker said.

“On the north end, we’re all getting very old, and people aren’t getting out of their houses,” one audience member said. “… This would be a way for people to connect, to have coffee, to play cards. … We have a food desert, and it would be wonderful for our community.”

One commenter even pointed to the frequency of drivers on Vashon Highway getting high on cannabis and driving into town, putting themselves and others at risk in their pursuit of snacks.

“All of this could be solved if they could get food at the Grange Hall,” he said, to laughter and applause from the audience.

While audience members were largely supportive of the zoning law change — with pro-grocery store advocates at the meeting receiving warm applause after their comments — not everyone is a fan.

Public comment sent to the county by Rick Shrum and Ginger Ferguson, neighbors to the Grange Hall, said that while they don’t oppose development on Vashon’s north end — including at the Grange — they’re opposed to the narrow-scope approach of the county’s approach to the Grange parcel.

A letter from Claudia Newman, an attorney representing Shrum and Ferguson for environmental law firm Bricklin & Newman LLP, calls the proposed amendment “a textbook example of unlawful spot zoning.”

“It’s a special privilege granted to a single property owner, creating an unequal advantage that sets her apart from everyone else,” the letter reads.

The Beachcomber will revisit the proposed Grange grocery store more fully in a future edition.


The County Council will review the plan throughout 2024 and is slated to adopt it in December of 2024. Comments on the plan proposals can be submitted at any point throughout the Council’s review in 2024 by emailing

Islanders can learn more at here, and questions can be emailed to