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Friday, May 16, 2008

“Eco”? Eh.

posted by on May 16 at 13:26 PM

I admit I was immediately skeptical when I read the headline, “Jobs, homes proposal for Snohomish County touted as eco-friendly,” in Wednesday’s Seattle Times. Would that be the same Snohomish County that was sanctioned by the governor for violating the state Growth Management Act? The same Snohomish County whose council opposed infill development, arguing that density did not belong in existing urban areas? The same Snohomish County where officials have not hesitated to fight for developers’ right to turn rural farmland into sprawling exurban developments? The same Snohomish County where even modest pushes toward a sensible growth strategy were met with cries of overregulation and excessive government intrusion on private property rights?

Yeah, that would be the one. So like I said, I was skeptical.

Here, as far as I can tell, is what’s “eco-friendly” about this exurban development, to be located on 600 acres in Cathcart, past Mill Creek near Highway 9:

• It’ll have a transit hub and a job center—the same type of job center that has failed spectacularly at containing sprawl and auto dependency at Snoqualmie Ridge.

• It will include four-story condo buildings, plus “green” businesses “such as hydroponic greenhouses and solar-energy production on land once slated for a county landfill.”

• And it will include 170 acres of open space, including some restored wetlands.

Here’s the problem, though. Unless all those new condo dwellers work where they live—unlikely, as the example provided by Snoqualmie Ridge has shown—they’ll all need to commute somewhere, and most of them will do so by car. Non-commute trips—which make up 75 percent of all car trips—will likely increase as well. (Sound Transit provides bus service in Snohomish County, but their tax base there is already stretched thin, making a major service expansion unlikely even if voters do back a Sound Transit expansion in 2008. And much of which could end up going toward a fund for future light rail, anyway.) Making a community “self-contained” (with jobs, retail, and housing in one places) rarely accomplishes much if that community’s also isolated from surrounding cities.

Meanwhile, the people who work in all that ground-level retail that’s being planned as part of this mixed-use development would most likely commute in from elsewhere. (I’m guessing workers at, say, Bed, Bath & Beyond can’t afford a brand-new condo in a highly publicized “eco-development.”) So while, you know, yay for a transit hub (after all, it’s easier to provide transit when you only have to stop at one central location), I’m skeptical that the improvements in transit are going to translate into less congestion on the roads and emissions in the air.

Finally, on the subject of wetlands: “Restoring” wetlands—AKA creating new wetlands to replace wetlands that have been destroyed—is not the same thing as preserving existing wetlands. Wetlands are complex ecosystems that are extremely difficult to establish and maintain; restoring wetlands is far inferior to simply preserving them in the first place. And, de Place notes, “[developers] preserve the wetlands on these sites because it’s illegal not to.” And “clustering a bunch of impervious surface [driveways, roads, and rooftops] around wetlands can pretty seriously degrade their quality.”

Paul Krugman touches briefly on the subject of exurban development today on his blog, noting that the suburbs were designed with the assumption that oil prices would stay low forever. Now that gas prices are high and climbing, exurban dwellers—people who live in places like eastern Snohomish County— with few or no alternatives to driving are the hardest hit.

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Oh Erica.. Why don't you put your energy toward lobbying for the "sensible strategy" that you really (in your heart of hearts) want to see in place...

A State Law requiring that all residents must live within walking distance of where they work

-Or- (-and-?)

outlawing private ownership or operation of internal combustion engines.

Try expressing your vision for the future as a positive proposition presenting a solution (I think either of the two laws suggested above should get you there) instead of just pissing on everything.

Stop whining and lead for a change...

Posted by You_Gotta_Be_Kidding_Me | May 16, 2008 1:38 PM

ECB is a Microsocialist.

Posted by NapoleonXIV | May 16, 2008 1:45 PM

Thanks for making that point about wetland "restoration". It'll most likely be a sterile pond in the middle of a lawn somewhere.

Posted by STJA | May 16, 2008 1:52 PM

So if someone drives a single-occupancy Toyota Prius 50 miles each way to and from work, and lives in this eco-home, are they better or worse than a beef-grilling sports-watching guy who hunts wildlife on safaris to Eastern Washington ... but who walks two blocks to work.

I'm thinking the latter is the eco-savior and the former is the eco-destroyer.

Posted by Will in Seattle | May 16, 2008 1:52 PM

@4, that's not the comparison we should be making. The better comparison is between the prospective "eco-home" commuter and a commuter within the same region.

Also, not sure what watching sports has to do with anything.

Posted by joykiller | May 16, 2008 1:58 PM


It depends, which one is a) A Liberal b) A Socialist or c) A Feminist. (Points are awarded thusly A=1, B=2, C=3 and compounded for individuals with multiple traits. The one with the most points is the most eco, regardless of actual practices.)

Posted by You_Gotta_Be_Kidding_Me | May 16, 2008 2:01 PM

The bottom line I think Erica is trying to make is that development should not have been built in the first place since other efforts have NOT worked.

This is just sprawl with the prefix "Eco-" to make buyers feel less guilt ridden. And Erica, right on about how employees at Starbucks or other retail cann't afford a $300K mortgage.

Posted by Cato the Younger Younger | May 16, 2008 2:11 PM

Don't get me started on SnoCo's bullshit. Farmland, hell; people are getting permits to mow down FOREST to build their crappy "cluster developments right next to salmon streams, laws and regulations be damned. "Wetlands" isn't code for "pond in a lawn", it's code for "mound of forest debris around bulldozed gash". "Cluster development" means "cul-de-sac twenty miles from the nearest services". They're doing it NOW. I can show you exactly where:,+wa&ie=UTF8&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-a&ll=48.277367,-121.763492&spn=0.010139,0.028152&t=h&z=16

Posted by Fnarf | May 16, 2008 2:12 PM

For once I somewhat agree with the conclusion here, though: one of the best things you can do for the environment is to live near where you work. Obviously, this isn't possible for everyone, but it's something to strive for.

The problem isn't just the exurbanites buying "eco-friendly" homes in Snohomish County, though. It's also the urbanites who delude themselves into thinking that living in a walkable neighborhood in Seattle and commuting to Redmond or Issaquah is somehow eco-friendly.

"It's ok if I commute by car across 520 every day, because I walk to the farmers market and buy organic vegetables once a week. Oh, and to assuage my guilt, BUILD ME SOME LIGHT RAIL FROM BALLARD TO REDMOND, STAT! I can clearly afford to live closer to work, but I like living in Ballard/Fremont/Capitol Hill."

Posted by joykiller | May 16, 2008 2:38 PM

Yeah, but Will in Seattle's mythical 100-story condo towers (or the Stranger's generally blind support for any and all in-City building projects) are going to change the reality of how our region is developing.

Good luck with that....

Posted by Mr. X | May 16, 2008 2:41 PM

The people who are moving to rural SnoCo and commuting to Everett in their Dodge Ram 3500 trucks think they ARE living close to where they work.

Posted by Fnarf | May 16, 2008 3:12 PM

Ummm...go drive out to where they are proposing this (or look at google maps) and than realize that less than 1/4 of a mile west of this developmment, there are already houses in subdivisions that have been built in different phases since the early to mid 1980's. This area has been planned for development since the 1980's. I'm not saying its great or the best use of the land. What I'm saying is that its a bit late to be pontificating about them proposing to build a major subdivision in this area.

Also, this isn't Eastern Snohomish County. One would classify that more as anything east of Highway 9. This is just west of Highway 9 where the landfill was.

Posted by Brian in Seattle | May 16, 2008 4:55 PM

Also, if the people who move into this development say work at Boeing or somewhere in Everett, the distance is no greater than driving from Seattle to Bellevue/Bellevue to Seattle and less than all the Microsoft people who drive everyday from Seattle to Redmond.

Now if these people move here and commute to Bellevue everyday than,yes the distance and gas consumption is much greater. But one doesn't know who is going to move in and who is going to work where.

Posted by Brian in Seattle | May 16, 2008 5:05 PM

how about a streetcar from Ballard to the lightrail?

Posted by Will in Seattle | May 16, 2008 5:41 PM

When gas prices climb to $20 per gallon (I predict we'll see $5 per gallon gas prices before the year is out), these exurbs and even less "out there" suburbs will become slums. It's all explained in the documentary film "The End of Suburbia." And for you naysayers who think we won't see $20 per gallon gas anytime soon, just ask yourself what would happen in a NY minute if we drop the big one on Iran...

Posted by Mud Baby | May 18, 2008 2:15 PM

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