Deciphering county plan documents is daunting task

I’ve finally figured out King County’s latest proposal to encourage more affordable housing in Vashon Town.

I think I’ve finally figured out King County’s latest proposal to encourage more affordable housing in Vashon Town.

But the county didn’t make it easy for me.

The new affordable-housing plans for Vashon’s center are embedded in King County’s proposed 2024 update of its Comprehensive Plan, the massive countywide guide for growth and development. The update, now before the County Council, consists of a 553-page ordinance with nine attachments and 11 supporting documents, some of them also hundreds of pages long.

But you won’t find what you need to know about the affordable housing proposal for Vashon Town in one easy-to-find place. Pieces of the puzzle are scattered all over, and there’s no roadmap.

To get a complete picture, I had to explore no fewer than seven of the proposed Comp Plan update’s sometimes-weighty volumes. At times I felt like I was searching for some very tiny needles in some very large haystacks.

I get that Vashon is a small part of a big county. I realize that zoning and land-use regulation is complicated stuff.

But c’mon, King County. It shouldn’t be this hard.

I’m no stranger to dense, arcane government documents. Over the course of a 40-year journalism career I got pretty adept at mining dry, jargon-laden tomes for buried nuggets of significance.

I needed those old excavating skills to piece together what the county’s now proposing for affordable housing on this island.

I learned from one Comp Plan document that the county’s last attempt to encourage lower-income housing in Vashon Town, in 2017, has been a bust, producing no new homes. It essentially would have permitted developers to build more housing than zoning ordinarily allowed on 246 properties if all the units were affordable for folks of modest means.

I also learned the county now proposes to repeal that 2017 rule and instead include Vashon Town with other unincorporated population hubs in an “inclusionary housing” program. Like the failed 2017 Vashon effort, it would offer developers “density bonuses” as an incentive to build affordable units.

How do the new bonuses compare with the old ones? The report didn’t say.

It did reveal, in a footnote, that the 2017 bonuses never applied to a large chunk of Vashon Town, most of the properties zoned for commercial use.

It turns out the bonuses were superseded there by another regulation, dating back to 1996, that allowed housing in “mixed-use” projects — usually retail with residential — but limited it to eight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.

From another report I learned that the county now wants to amend that 1996 regulation to allow “a higher density” on those 100 or so properties, if all the housing is affordable.

All good to know. But … details, please? How much more density? The reports I’d read so far didn’t say. I found the answers deep in the bowels of two more Comp Plan documents.

Here’s the biggest change, tucked away on page 122 of Attachment I: For those commercial properties where density now is limited to eight units an acre, the maximum would jump to 36 — again, if all the homes are affordable.

Talk about burying the lead.

So far I’d seen nothing about whether the county proposes to require developers of affordable housing to give some preference to prospective tenants who already live, work or have family on Vashon.

I learned the answer to that question in still another document: Not now — but the county does plan to study it.

When will that study be finished? The answer – 2027 — was in yet another document.

Just to be clear: For the most part, my quarrel isn’t with the content of the county’s proposals, but their form.

No one questions Vashon’s need for more affordable housing. If the density bonuses the county adopted in 2017 weren’t enough to attract affordable housing developers, I’m willing to give more generous bonuses a shot.

They won’t turn Vashon Town into West Seattle Junction, a specter some have raised. The proposed densities aren’t nearly that high.

Now that I understand it, what the county is offering looks reasonable to me. It’s important that my island neighbors also understand it so they can draw their own informed conclusions.

It’s too bad the county is asking us to navigate a labyrinth to figure out just what their plan is.

Eric Pryne is a retired Seattle Times journalist.