A Fall City neighborhood group has filed suit against King County and a Bellevue-based developer, challenging the recent approval of three housing development applications.
Fall City Sustainable Growth (FCSG), a nonprofit group of about a dozen residents, filed the suit in King County Superior Court under the Land Use Petition Act on Oct. 23. They are asking for the court to overrule the approval of three preliminary housing subdivision applications from last month that they argue are inconsistent with the rural character requirement of the King County Comprehensive Plan.
“The case was filed because the county is not enforcing its regulation that requires new development in Fall City to be consistent with the rural character that King County is trying to protect there,” David Bricklin, a lawyer for FCSG, said in a phone interview. “The county made a determination that the projects were not consistent with the rural character policies of the county comprehensive plan, but refused to enforce that requirement.”
The three applications in question were all unanimously approved by the King County Council on Oct. 3, denying an appeal filed by FCSG.
Darren Carnell, a lawyer for the county, redirected communication to the Department of Local Services. A spokesperson for the department was not immediately available for comment.
Taylor Development, a real estate developer, submitted all three applications seeking to create 50 subdivided lots. The applications represent just a few of the vacant lots in Fall City that Taylor is targeting for development. In total, their developments are expected to bring over 100 new homes to Fall City.
Patrick Mullaney, a lawyer representing Taylor, said in a phone call that they are reviewing the case.
Robert Fitzmaurice, Taylor’s director of land entitlement and development, who is named in the suit, could not be reached for comment.
FCSG has challenged nearly all of Taylor’s subdivision applications through King County’s administrative appeals process. They argue approval is inconsistent with the King County Comprehensive Plan, a high-level planning document used by local governments to guide policy decisions.
While the subdivisions meet local zoning code requirements, FCSG argues, they go against the comprehensive plan’s stated goal of preserving Fall City’s rural character. As an unincorporated town, Fall City is one of only three areas in the county to receive a “rural town” designation from the county and should be handled differently, they say.
Alison Moss, a hearing examiner who presided over FCSG’s appeals, did not agree with that reasoning. In her decision, Moss wrote she lacked the authority to “fill in” perceived or real gaps between the comprehensive plan and zoning requirements.
“The King County Council has adopted specific density requirements for the Fall City Rural Town and has chosen not to adopt other regulations many of those submitting written or oral comments wish they had,” she wrote.
“[E]ven assuming there was an inconsistency between the zoning and the King County Comprehensive Plan,” Moss continued, “a specific zoning ordinance prevails over an inconsistent comprehensive plan.”
In an email to supporters, Mike Suelzle, a FCSG member, said they believe their best chance for an objective review is with a judge, calling the lawsuit critically important – even if its end result does not directly benefit Fall City.
“We are in the middle of the once-every-20-year process of writing new land use regulations and policies,” he wrote, referring to a scheduled update to King County’s comprehensive plan update next year. “Even if we can’t save Fall City from these predatory development practices, our work today shapes the new policies being written.”
An initial hearing has been scheduled for December, with a trial date slated for late March.
At a meeting of the Fall City Community Association last month, Suelzle said FCSG has raised $58,000 in donations, nearly all of which went to legal fees.
Members of the Fall City Community Association, the nonprofit group made up of residents that runs Fall City in absence of a proper city government, also voted in September to donate $10,000 to FCSG.
Moratorium on development
As the lawsuit makes its way through the court, the King County Council is expected to hold a vote Nov. 14 on legislation that would add temporary restrictions to housing developments in Fall City.
Earlier this year, in response to community push-back, the King County Council approved an emergency, seven-month development moratorium that halted all new residential subdivisions applications of five or more lots in Fall City.
Councilmember Sarah Perry, who represents East King County, sponsored the moratorium. She said the pause gave officials time to study residents’ concerns and decide if additional policies are needed to regulate growth in rural areas.
With the moratorium expiring in mid-December, Perry has introduced additional legislation to create a 15-month interim zoning overlay for residentially zoned parcels in Fall City. The temporary zoning would require 10,000-square-foot minimum lot sizes, 10-foot interior setbacks, and 20-foot street setbacks on all residential parcels.
Perry said the interim zoning control would essentially maintain the moratorium until the end of 2024, until the King County Council approves its 2024 update to the county comprehensive plan. The update is anticipated to address many concerns regarding how the county handles growth in rural areas.
“We want to make sure that the community’s interests are upheld for the character of their town while we go through this process for the comprehensive plan,” Perry said.
Perry also emphasized the interim zone is not about preventing growth, but preserving the uniqueness of Fall City and maintaining characteristics of an unincorporated town.
“The community members are clear they are happy to take as much growth as [the] zoning allows, which means four units per acre,” she said. “They are not saying let’s reduce that. They’re saying let’s have growth out to the full extent its allowed, but we do need those setbacks from the street and house to maintain that sense of being unincorporated.”
Fitzmaurice, the Taylor director, has previously expressed opposition to the emergency moratorium and called plans for temporary zoning “a mistake.”
“We fear that this would open the door for every neighborhood group that wants to stop growth in their area to claim that they too need a special zoning designation,” he said during public comment in June. “Taylor Development’s projects are vested to the current code and meet the requirements for rural character.”