Miles of coastlines and pristine forests, tranquility amid flowing streams and open spaces, a friendly community reminiscent of the good old days of country living—the Key Peninsula is an idyllic place for those running away from the hubbub of city life and the swarming highways. But as more people discover what some call “the crown jewel of Puget Sound,” the challenge of balancing growth and preserving quality of life becomes a priority. A community planning board is trying to address both sides.

About five years ago, a clearcutting of 76 acres in Vaughn stirred up emotions among residents. Their worries ranged from wetlands and runoff to preservation of rural character.

During one of the public meetings on the issue, Rep. Pat Lantz said a similar case involving massive clearcutting on State Route 16 eventually triggered the county’s comprehensive plan. The plan stopped short of the Key Peninsula, she said.

Private citizens had no say with their county and state government, residents said at the time. The Growth Management Act had failed them, they said, and warned that this would happen on the Key Peninsula over and over again.

While no other local development or logging has caused big public outcry since then, the question of consequences has remained: What happens to the quality of life on the Key Pen as more people move in and more trees come down?

KP Community Planning Board The CPB meetings are scheduled at 7 p.m. every first Wednesday and third Tuesday of the month at the KP Middle School library. Documents including a vision statement, goals, and maps are atwww.piercecountywa.org/landuse, or call 798-2700. The environmental element discussion will continue in April, followed by the land-use element that will focuse on zoning, types of uses, commercial areas, rural densities and more.

 

“I don’t want to see a Burger King all the way down the Key Peninsula, that’s not why I moved down here,” said Suzanne Hickel, a John L. Scott real estate agent who’s lived on the KP for more than a decade. “We will retire out here. We absolutely love it.”

Hickel is one of countless residents who say they moved here to enjoy the rural setting, the quiet neighborhoods and the lifestyle, and they don’t want to see that changed. As a realtor, she has seen a growing interest in the local housing market, and says the area will become even more attractive once the second Tacoma Narrows Bridge is built.

Hickel was encouraged by Pierce County Councilman Terry Lee to attend the meetings of the KP Community Planning Board, which is in the middle of tackling issues like hers through a community plan. The plan will address the environment, land use, economic development, community character, facilities and services. It is seen as a tool for preserving the quality of life and bringing services to local residents.

To grow or not to grow—it’s not a question
Lee, a longtime Gig Harbor resident and former county planning commissioner, says the new bridge will bring traffic to the Key Peninsula’s front door, and the community needed to plan for growth before it becomes rapid. “You look at the Key Peninsula and all the miles of shoreline and view property — the bridge is the only thing that keeps people away,” he said. “People who think they can stop growth are kidding themselves.”

Pierce County, the second most populated in the state, has been bursting at the seams, adding an average of 12,000 people to its population every year. While only 23 percent of those people lived in unincorporated areas in the 1920s, that number grew to 57 percent by ‘90. The majority of population growth, more than 80 percent, occurred in rural areas in the 1980s.

“I drive up and down the Key Peninsula five or six times a week and I can see things changing significantly in terms of traffic and development,” said Frank DiBiase, a planning board member. A resident of 18 years, he has watched many of his favorite jogging trails disappear to development. “I saw (the board) as an opportunity to have some input into what happens to the Key Peninsula in the future,” he said.

A tale of two cities
Pierce County land development has two poster children. Gig Harbor and South Hill are frequently held up as an example of planning: Gig Harbor as an illustration of how planning can enhance the quality of life, and South Hill as a case of poor growth management.

Gig Harbor was the first unincorporated area in Pierce County to develop a community plan — long before the statewide Growth Management Act proclaimed a war on sprawl. “What it has done was focus the intensive growth in the area it can handle it, yet retain the rural characteristic everybody likes about Gig Harbor,” said James DePew, who moved to Gig Harbor in 1976, a year after the community plan was adopted. He was later part of the board that updated the plan in 2000 to comply with the Growth Management Act (GMA) of 1990.

For South Hill, exploding population brought a 50 percent loss of trees between 1972 and 1996, endless strips of malls/gas stations/fast food restaurants, and clogged roads. As commercial signs multiplied, so did South Hill’s notoriety for streets that go nowhere and neighborhoods unfriendly to pedestrians. Not that nobody cared: Residents tried to get a community plan earlier, but did not succeed until 2003.

There is no threat for the Key Pen to become the next South Hill, thanks to existing regulations. But the way Fire District 16 commissioner and planning board member Jim Bosch sees it, the Peninsula already has its equivalent of South Hill. One only has to drive along State Route 302 and Key Peninsula Highway to notice the lonely commercial structures lining up the road. “We may not have strip development…as on South Hill, but we have it — it’s just restricted by the size of lots,” he said.

The ‘step-child’ gets attention
Pierce County itself was once known as the “poster child of growth management” and one of the main reasons why the GMA was passed by the Legislature. Following the GMA’s focus on citizen participation in planning, the county developed a community- driven process rather than a top-down one for its comprehensive plan, and has followed the same strategy for all the community plans, which are not mandatory. The plans take longer and more money than they would if done by planners, but the county believes residents are more likely to buy into grass-roots efforts.

“You have to keep the locals involved in the planning process. It’s important that it not be done by bureaucrats,” said county senior planner Mike Kruger, who is overseeing the KP plan and has worked with other communities including Gig Harbor.

The county allocates enough money to accommodate two plans per year. And they are not cheap: $150,000 for each of the two years. “The money we spend on staff to create it is ‘chump change’ compared to what it will bring to the community,” Lee said. “If we identify priorities in the plan, we are more likely to get funding not only from Pierce County but other agencies.”

Lee said he received his “marching orders” from local residents during his campaign to not forget about them, and he’s been bringing in funding for groups ranging from the Little League and KP Community Council to the Children’s Home Society. The community plan, he said, is another part of his attempt to bring the Key Pen out of being called by residents the step-child of the county.

Some residents have cried foul, saying they are already overregulated and want the county to stay out of their business.

“People don’t want to be regulated out of the enjoyment of their property, but over time there is certainty in regulations as development is no longer arbitrary,” Gig Harbor’s DePew said.

Lee said, “They can either decide what’s going to happen in their community, or the county will do it for them.”

Months of work ahead
The plan looks at the area’s unique features. The GMA and the county’s comprehensive plan serve as the basis. The plan must be consistent with both, but puts the rules within the geographical context of the community and provides details. Each element is approached by a subcommittee, which will then submit recommended policy to the board. Each element takes about three months, and anybody who comes can be on the subcommittee. Ultimately, the entire plan will go before the board, then the county planning commission and county council, and every step will have public hearings.

“The GMA is giving us certain bookends; as long as we are within them, it’s fair game,” Kruger said.

So far, participation has been good, but board members wish for more. “The more people involved, the more their voices will be heard,” said Claude Gahard, a winery owner representing agricultural interests on the board. “If you’re concerned about elements of the Key Peninsula, come to the meetings. Do you want Key Peninsula to be a bedroom community? I don’t.”

Frustrated with the county for years, some residents have used the meetings to vent their dissatisfaction with everything from high taxes and overregulation to the notoriously difficult permit process. “I can understand that people feel that way…but I hope we don’t miss out on a good opportunity because we can’t get past our (negative) perceptions,” DiBiase said. “The plan is for all of us and our children, our future…so we can enjoy the quality of life.”

The 15 board members represent interests ranging from real estate, environmental, social services, fire, park and school districts to community council and businesses. Gahard said, “We don’t know what the outcome will be but I can assure you the board is diversified enough to…address the diversity of issues.”

The decisions will not be easy. The board must balance private property rights with the need to preserve the environment; residential growth that will increase demand for services with sufficient commercial growth to provide the tax base; economic development with preserving the rural character; and much more. It must come up with compromises between development and preservation yet create a meaningful document that will impact the Key Peninsula for the next 20 years.

“It’s a tall order,” DiBiase said.

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