"Cluster" concept on rise but not universally liked
The legal battle over Quinn's Crossing ended early last summer, when the developer and the project's leading opponents settled dueling lawsuits...
Seattle Times business reporter
The legal battle over Quinn's Crossing ended early last summer, when the developer and the project's leading opponents settled dueling lawsuits out of court.
But that didn't halt a broader debate in Snohomish County over "rural cluster subdivisions" like Quinn's Crossing.
Arsonists drew attention to the issue when they torched four houses in the development early Monday. They left a sign slamming "RCDs" — rural cluster developments — as anything but green.
Supporters of the concept, including developers and many environmentalists, say it preserves open space and is a more efficient way to develop land. But opponents — who emphasize that they deplore Monday's arson — say rural clusters bring too much city to the country.
"They're building big, expensive houses on small lots that don't look the same as the rest of the houses in the rural area," said Maxine Turk of SnoPORCH, which stands for People Opposed to Rural Cluster Housing.
Clusters: pro and con
A rural-cluster subdivision allows a developer to build more houses than rural zoning ordinarily would allow, provided it leaves at least 45 percent of the land as open space and clusters the homes on what's left.
Without clustering, the developer of Quinn's Crossing, Yarrow Bay Group of Kirkland, would have been limited to 24 houses, each on a lot of about five acres.
With clustering, Snohomish County allowed Yarrow Bay to build up to 48 homes, on lots averaging just one-half acre. In return, Yarrow Bay agreed to leave 70 percent of its 114 acres undeveloped.
Supporters of clustering say it preserves broad expanses of forests and pastures without spending tax dollars.
"It's an efficient way to use land," said Mike Pattison of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. "Otherwise you'd just have this patchwork of five-acre lots."
Clustering also means shorter streets and fewer impervious surfaces that dump runoff into streams, said John Hempelmann, Yarrow Bay's attorney.
Rural cluster subdivisions have surged recently, peaking in 2006 when developers filed applications for 1,800 lots.
Opponents say the developments threaten streams and wells, overload country roads and give rural Snohomish County more of a suburban, cul-de-sac feel.
The county is revising its rural-cluster rules. A draft before the Planning Commission calls for, among other things, wider setbacks and buffers and a drop in the number of lots in any individual cluster from 30 to 13.
"We're hearing from citizens that they're concerned about what they perceive as urban development in the rural area," said Tom Rowe of the county's Planning and Development Services Department.
The draft doesn't reduce the number of additional lots a developer can get for clustering. It should, said Tim Trohimovich of the anti-sprawl group Futurewise.
"We generally support clustering," he said, "but it should be at rural densities."
Worries over water
The fight over Quinn's Crossing focused mostly on water, not density. Neighbors, who called themselves the Echo-Paradise Community, said they feared sewage from the new houses' septic systems would pollute the aquifer that is the sole drinking-water source for 20,000 people.
Yarrow Bay sued in 2006 when the county ruled that construction on 21 lots could proceed, but that the other 27 would have to wait until the first 21 houses had been occupied for two years and their water-quality impact reviewed.
The Echo-Paradise Community later filed its own suit. The settlement the two sides reached last year allows more homes to be built now, requires 24-hour electronic monitoring of each septic system's performance, and establishes a fund to pay for repairs if a homeowner won't.
"We got more stringent controls than we would have ordinarily," said Laura Hartman, the Echo-Paradise Community's president, who said her group is appalled by Monday's arsons.
So is Turk, of the SnoPORCH group. "I hope they find those people," she said. "This is just garbage."
Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231
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