The Density of Kittitas

Introduction

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This range wilderness is as important as a skyline.

When I look at Kittitas County in Washington, where the density is 17 people per square mile over 2,200 square miles I see it as a resident of Brooklyn where the density is over 35,000 people per square mile on just 71 square miles. I love New York City, and places similar to the wilderness of Kittitas range from just a few minutes away (a large park) to dense forest several hours away, but none of them are truly wild any longer. They are encapsulated and fragmented.

For reasons I am attempting to articulate, I would not like to see Kittitas become like the New York region, but I do not see it stopped in anyway, even so-called unbuildable sites eventually succumb.

This look into Kittitas began with an article I came across in the The Daily Record while doing research for Density. I need to share and develop a couple ideas using the networking potential of resources such as this, so here it goes.

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Kittitas Case Study (feasibility)

Many observers and planners of national urban development practices know the Seattle, Tacoma region as Cascadia. The rural world of Kittitas County is just east of the Snoqualmie National Forest. It is here, in just a few small towns along US 90 where the battle for density and urbanization is in reverse, but it might be loosing.

One group, the Kittitas County Conservation Coalition’s central mission is the preservation of a rural future. One of the things that energizes this countywide nonprofit is the growing number of historic trailhead closures by landowners. These trails link the past to the present and define an exquisite wilderness. They should not be lost. The hope of this organization now seems solely dependent on a fragile, but comprehensive statewide initiative.  This is Washington’s well-known, highly examined, and heavily documented Growth Management Act (GMA).

The Kittitas Coalition’s view of how the GMA promotes continued sprawl in rural lands is the failure to reduce zoning of three to five acre lots based on a policy not to change existing zones.  New York City’s “buffer zone” was at one time New Jersey, it is currently the nation’s most dense suburban state.

The state GMA requires local governments to invest in comprehensive plans and comply with state and federal standards aimed at the protection of wetlands, streams, farms, and forests. This investment in planning has heightened the debate on questions of growth and density and intensified the role of citizens groups such as the Kittitas Coalition. These issues pit the emotions and traditions of frontier independence against the capacity of the state and local planning agencies to manage urban development as it occurs one plat, one PUD, one commercial farming, forest or retail project at a time. Maps on the Kittitas Coalition’s website illustrate changes in land use regulation by zoning designation from 2000 to 2009. Words are not required to recognize the exponential growth of development interest in this rural environment.

Increased public involvement in planning is exhausting, but the dialogue on how local governments need to plan and develop housing and services for all income groups has met with success. The overall density of Kittitas is low at 17 people per square mile, but almost half of the housing in the county is rental, and nearly 60% of its 38,000 residents live in urban areas. The public process helps the community anticipate its needs and thereby the chance to respond creatively. Nevertheless, the overwhelming pressure of exponential population growth throughout the Washington State presents an unrelenting and continuous challenge on the utility of the GMA.

Recently the Christian Science Monitor had something to say about the county.   A recent survey organizes the nation into twelve community types using a combination of demographic, political and socioeconomic data and named it the patchwork nation for illustrative purposes.

However, almost any set of census block groups from any major urban area such as Cascadia will replicate a similar image of the nation. That the nation has these social densities as similarly as a city is encouraging. What is discouraging is the slow and unrelenting lack of clear distinctions between what is urban and what is not.

Kittitas County meets the “boomtown†characteristic among the twelve.  These are, the towns and county overall is fast growing, changing and diversifying.  It is home to relatively affluent communities and like much of the country experiencing growth of minority populations.  Most recently, its once thriving economy is experiencing harder times.

The Kittitas Question
Protect the northwest from what happened to the northeast.

From a national planning perspective, Seattle and Tacoma look something like Manhattan. To the east lies the massive Snoqualmie national forest, but on a map, it looks something like one of New York’s large open spaces such as Central, Prospect, Pelham or Gateway National Park. While everything is actually very different in the northwest from the typography to the trees, Kittitas County is beginning to look like New Jersey, the largely suburban and densest state in the union.

What would happen if I drew a line around Urban Kittitas? Inside this line, growth would be exponential to an upper, unknown density only limited by one rule, that it not be poisonous to anything and everything inside or outside that line. Everything outside that line would become essentially wild. Development would be severely limited and comply with the same rule. Would those who found themselves owning and controlling portions of these two worlds recognize the enormous value of each? If this could happen, what would happen?

UPDATE

Changes in Kittitas County’s comprehensive land-use plan, as recommended by three citizen advisory committees, and county staff, can be followed online HERE and accessible under “Kittitas County Comprehensive Plan Compliance.”

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