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New vision for Fall City business: Residents, owners say downtown plan needs flexibility

Farmhouse Market owner Jay Bluher visits his deli case. Bluher would like to be able to offer a hot deli, but can
Farmhouse Market owner Jay Bluher visits his deli case. Bluher would like to be able to offer a hot deli, but can't under existing Fall City codes. 'It's just one more piece of the puzzle, that can bring customers in the door,' he says.
— image credit: Seth Truscott / Snoqualmie Valley Record

The cold sandwiches are popular, but Jay Bluher would love to put some fried chicken, roasted potatoes and a corn dog or two in his deli case.

"It's something I know we could sell," he said. "We're just not able."

Cooking hot, fried items is out of the question at Bluher's Farmhouse Market. Like other downtown Fall City entrepreneurs, his options are limited by the King County codes that govern Fall City commerce.

"We're not allowed to do anything hot because our permit doesn't allow it," Bluher said.

Without a sewer, downtown Fall City businesses rely on septic systems. That makes Fall City different from neighbors like Carnation, which installed a sewer system in 2008. Under Fall City's existing sub-area plan, lack of sewers limits the practices of existing businesses and has prevented new ones from opening. Without a sewer, Bluher will never get his deli, and other business efforts are stymied.

Bernie Buschen, owner of the former River's Edge store in downtown Fall City, tried to open a coffee shop in his space, a former butcher shop, several years ago. The county's health department denied the permit.

Buschen said he enjoys the elbow room and small-town environment that Fall City offers.

"On the other hand, you're totally handcuffed," he said.

Fall City's situation could change soon, though. In response to citizen and business pressure, King County's Department of Development and Environmental Services is reconsidering the Fall City Sub-Area Plan and the county's Comprehensive Plan. County officials want to bring new flexibility to the unincorporated community's downtown strip.

Town meeting

Residents aired concerns for downtown Fall City at a public meeting on area plan changes held Monday, Jan. 31, at Chief Kanim Middle School. Several locals took the microphone to ask for a new way of doing business, wondering aloud why their community's business base appears to be shrinking.

"I'm frustrated that I have to go outside of Fall City to get hardware," said Fall City attorney Larry Brown. "People have attempted to come into town and have been scared away because of zoning issues."

"Fall City is facing rural decay," said resident Neil Williams. "I think we're beginning to see blight... I'm concerned where we're going."

"The customers are here," said Fall City businessman Allen Minner. His family has owned several commercial buildings in Fall City, but has found that neighborhood zoning prevents new uses.

"Every time we put up a for-rent sign, somebody comes in and says, 'I'd really like to open a bakery," he said. Fall City's "dirty secret" is that when someone wants to open something like a bakery, "the county tells them they can't do that," he said.

"With neighborhood zoning, there's a limited number of things you can do," Minner said. "Really, what we should be talking about is 'What do we want?'... Once you decide what the vision of the community is, then you can decide how to get there."

Downtown identity

As Comprehensive Plan Project Manager for DDES, Paul Reitenbach is at the center of efforts to change the Fall City plan. He is gathering citizen input for prospective changes and is the point man for residents who want to submit specific zoning requests.

Reitenbach has proposed a demonstration project for flexible land uses in downtown Fall City. He also suggests defining allowed uses for the downtown neighborhood, and has ideas about how Fall City businesses can go beyond the limitations of a septic tank.

With King County's existing plan for Fall City linking commercial rezoning to sewers, "everyone has been denied out of hand," Reitenbach said. He says Fall City residents should clearly identify their downtown and allowed uses, doing away with a hodgepodge of zoning.

"We could come up with some flexibility... some tools to make development better in the downtown while leaving everyone else alone," Reitenbach told residents at Monday's meeting. "I'd love to see community agreement about what really is 'downtown.'"

Reitenbach admits that there are no sewers on the horizon, and that a large portion of the community is against them. But he doesn't see sewers as a real solution for Fall City's current needs.

Fall City resident Nancy Moore asked Reitenbach to address concerns that sewage changes would mean big box stores.

"We don't go from nothing to WalMart," Moore said. "There is a middle ground."

Reitenbach points to a more surgical way to address sewage and commercial zoning downtown.

"For now, sewers are not practical, and are not being proposed by anybody," Reitenbach said. "Let's say there was the technology to do something like a membrane system... a community disposal system that was financial feasible and attractive to business owners. It wouldn't suit a WalMart or anything like that. Maybe there's some alternative that's not a full-blown metro connection."

Reitenbach pointed to new or cutting-edge water treatment options in Woodinville and Skykomish as ways for small communities to take care of commercial water needs, responsibly.

When residents challenged whether the county's health department would allow such approaches, Lambert said she is working to push for cooperation among agencies.

"We do want to push people" to take green approaches," she said.

A decade ago, Bluher sat on a citizen committee that explored sewer options for Fall City. The county gave them eight options.

"None of them were something that 27 property owners could afford," he said.

Bluher said he supports a sewage option that would allow owners to expand, "or at least help their business survive."

Comments on how the county can help Fall City businesses will be accepted through Wednesday, Feb. 9. Residents have until June 30 to submit requests for individual zoning changes, called dockets, to the county. Subarea changes are allowed every four years.

"We are all a team," said County Councilwoman Kathy Lambert, who attended the meeting. "It's important that we hear from you on what you want your community to look like now, and over the next decades."

• To learn more about the proposed changes or the docketing process, e-mail Paul Reitenbach at p.reitenbach@kingcounty.gov or call (206) 296-6705.

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