As part of revising its Comprehensive Plan for 2024, King County is examining two critical regulations restricting development in the Vashon town core.
Lane Zorich-Reece, the senior Subarea planner at King County responsible for Vashon, confirmed the scope of the agency review in an email to The Beachcomber.
“One item is to comprehensively review all specialized zoning conditions on the Island and submit any recommended changes to the King County Council,” she wrote.
Currently under review are regulation VS-P28, which includes limits on height, and the Vashon Rural Town Affordable Housing Special District Overlay, or SO-270, which regulates density.
Those codes restrict building height in the town core to two stories or 35 feet, and allow a maximum density of 12 dwellings per acre – or a maximum of 18 units per acre for buildings considered to be income-qualified or affordable developments that also meet other code requirements.
The possibility of repealing or revising those codes has drawn the interest of affordable housing advocates on Vashon, who believe current regulations discourage investment in and construction of affordable, higher-density housing options.
In a mid-October meeting, the Affordable Housing Committee of the Vashon-Maury Community Council (V-MCC) discussed those two regulations, with several in attendance focused on the possibility of repealing or revising the height and density restrictions.
Led by V-MCC Affordable Housing committee Chair Morgan Brown, the meeting was open to the public and held on Zoom.
Housing advocates outline support for increased density
In an interview with The Beachcomber, Brown discussed his perspective on how current statutes inhibit affordable growth.
“The housing market has gotten really out of balance,” he said. “The restrictions on being able to build the type of housing that’s necessary — that zoning prohibits — is the biggest problem now.”
His interest in the matter is shared by Jason Johnson, Executive Director of Vashon HouseHold (VHH), who also attended the session. VHH is currently developing an income-qualified, 40-unit housing project at 188 St. SW and Vashon Highway, and already oversees multiple affordable rental units on the island.
Johnson has previously stated his support for increased density in the town core to support the development of more affordable, workforce-friendly housing.
V-MCC and Vashon Household, as well as individual housing advocates present at the meeting, hope to be active in upcoming discussions and push for higher-density zoning.
While the 1990 Washington State Growth Management Act already restricts rural development, Brown and others at the October meeting explained that it was not until the 1996 Vashon Town Plan, which became effective in 1997, that denser development was as heavily restricted as it is today. At the time, those changes were heavily discussed through an active Vashon-Maury Island Community Council.
Brown acknowledged, however, that even if the county adopted more density-friendly codes now, Vashon still might not be able to secure the commercial investment necessary to build much-needed housing.
“I would say there really is kind of a lack of that kind of development pressure, but at some point in the future that could be entirely different,” he said.
President and founder of a sustainable wastewater treatment engineering company, Whole Water Systems, Brown himself is developing a multi-family housing initiative on the west side of town. He notes that the scope of the project will not seek to utilize any of the provisions of the SDO, and will be minimally impacted by any current or proposed height restrictions for the town core.
A businessman and community activist, Brown grew up in Seattle and moved with his wife to Vashon in 2016. He brings a depth of knowledge to his leadership with V-MCC via a long history of involvement in sustainable housing and economic development in burgeoning communities.
He was involved in grassroots efforts to address gentrification and manage growth in Sun Valley, Idaho, and was a leader with the Sun Valley community organization Citizens for Smart Growth.
Through that work, Brown has come to believe that broad-based, grassroots involvement and platforming a diversity of interests is vital in directing growth.
“You have to get all those different voices in,” he said. “Sawbones, Thriftway, the school district, [all] need to be able to house employees to provide their services,” he said. “That’s of just as much value as somebody saying `I like my town funky, and I want it to stay the way it is.’”
Brown and Johnson, of VHH, have both commented that investment from the private sector, rather than government or nonprofit-driven initiatives, will be the key factor in developing more affordable housing on the island. To that end, Brown hopes to see more interest from the business community in the work of the Affordable Housing committee.
County will seek public input on proposed changes
For the past several decades, the County has initiated community discussions about zoning on Vashon each time it updated the Comprehensive Plan. The process for public input has varied with each iteration.
Zorich-Reece said that all islanders will have opportunities to weigh in on these proposed changes in the coming months, and outlined an open public process extending into mid-2023 for gathering feedback.
“The [King County] Executive is starting to gather public input on these specific Vashon issues via a mailed notice that was sent to all island residents in September,” she said. “Additional engagement on the development of the 2024 update will occur next year, including public review and feedback on a draft of the plan that will be released in mid-2023.”
Currently, the county is accepting input through an online survey at publicinput.com/vashonsubarea.
Brown said that Zorich-Reece, who is tasked with coordinating these potential regulatory changes, is indeed committed to engaging with organizations like V-MCC, VHH, and the Land Trust, and is active in seeking community input.
But he hopes for even broader public engagement, and that V-MCC will become a robust, central entity for channeling and amplifying Vashon voices concerned with all aspects of development.
“I think the Council can fill a very important role,” he said. “[It] should be something that could function as a viable bullhorn for islanders who want and need to be heard.”