As urban King County continues to deal with record population growth, outlying small towns are also feeling the strain. The difference is, small town growing pains are often more stark – with the way it was vs. what it is becoming more pronounced when growth invades quiet communities.
Inescapable change naturally leaves many longtime residents longing for the days when life was simpler, when ‘just west of Snoqualmie Pass’ was considered too far to drive for people working in Bellevue and Seattle.
After a nearly decade-long building moratorium due to lack of water rights, North Bend began growing again in 2008 when new water was secured. At that time the population was about 5,700. Today it’s about 7,000 (not including areas outside the city limits like River Bend and Wilderness Rim) and is expected to continue growing for the foreseeable future. One full build-out study predicts North Bend’s population will double – to over 14,000 – by 2035.
This has left the city entrenched by growth and the challenges that accompany it. Nearby Snoqualmie has also grown, but in a different way, with the majority of its growth planned years ago. Approximately 85% of the city’s population now resides in the master planned community of Snoqualmie Ridge, which after two decades of constant construction, will be complete in about a year.
An advantage to master planned communities is that much of the infrastructure and planning is done years before homes pop up – like new public works facilities, new police stations, underground infrastructure, local roads, etc. It’s all laid out, plotted on a map, and land cleared just waiting for builders.
North Bend on the Build
Travel seven miles east, and North Bend is dealing with a different situation: a perfect storm of growth that’s happening all at once as land owners nearing retirement and pinched by growing tax bills decide to exercise their right to sell to developers; new King County residents recruited for high paying tech jobs seek more affordable housing in suburbs that used to be farms; the city council looks for ways to maintain a rural, small town identity as it struggles with zoning and density levels; city staff work to keep pace with road and other infrastructure improvements; and some citizens – frustrated by traffic and increased density – call for a building moratorium.
If you look at North Bend’s development project map – it could leave you nervous. In the next three years the city says another 650 homes could be built. This is on top of the several hundred homes built and occupied during the past two years. The bulk of these new neighborhoods are also served by one two-lane, main road – North Bend Way, which is feeling the stress of additional vehicles. [To download a larger version of the map click HERE.]
Efforts to Keep Pace with and Slow Growth
In response, the city is constantly updating its 6-year Transportation Improvement Plan and identifying new projects, some of which will be constructed by developers and others will be funded by grants. Five new roundabouts are planned for the downtown North Bend area, including two on North Bend Way – one at Park Street by QFC and one at 436th near exit 32. Others are also planned at 436th and 136th; 468th and 140th; and 4th and Bendigo Blvd.
City officials and council members have faced pushback – including harsh criticism – over the rapid growth. One vocal opposition has come from community group Friends of the Snoqualmie Valley Trail, which continues to look for ways to stop the Dahlgren Property development that is slated to bring 212 new apartments along North Bend Way. To date their efforts have not been successful, but the group is now focused on environmental and water supply issues that will be presented during a hearing examiner appeal on July 31st. Thus far, this is the only project the group has opposed, although two other large apartment complexes are planned in close proximity to Dahlgren property and trail.
The Sallal Water Association is also hearing resident concerns as a portion of its service area, which was annexed to the City of North Bend in 2009, continues to gain hundreds of new housing units. Residents have asked Sallal to consider a building moratorium over the water issues, but the association recently said no – that it has enough water options and new development will help fund future, needed upgrades to its water supply system.
In a recently released statement on water issues, Sallal Water Association stated, “The interests of Sallal and its members would be best served by Sallal providing the retail service and collecting the membership fees and monthly rates from new development. Monthly rates will be lower if Sallal is able to continue accepting new members.”
The City of North Bend is also working to improve its waste water treatment plant, and in 2016 it hiked water/sewer rates by 50% to help cover approximately $27 million in needed plant upgrades. General facility charges/connection fees for new homes also doubled to help fund the upgrades.
Let’s not forget about downtown. City officials are also trying to revamp the downtown core. They hired a consultant last year to recruit new businesses to fill empty storefronts and to work on strategies to address ‘eyesore’ buildings, although there’s been no noticeable progress there. Grants are funding downtown street and infrastructure improvements. One upcoming project is also expected to add needed street parking spots – a big concern of residents and business owners.
New Residents, other Changes and the Future of North Bend
And amidst all of these changes are the new residents – people looking for more affordable homes and a safe place to raise a family. Many say they were drawn to North Bend for its small town feel and beautiful landscapes.
Longtime and new residents often take to North Bend Facebook groups to voice concerns. Some want the door shut to growth – even some who have lived in North Bend for only a few years – and loudly voice these feelings. These concerns are then countered by new residents who sometimes say they feel unwelcome – even though they do their best to shop locally, support hometown business and pay the same property taxes.
What will the end product be?
It may be years before the final product – Post-growth-North-Bend – is realized, but according to the city council, they are working to manage growth. They rezoned density levels; changed cottage housing development standards; adopted a policy to not accept developer-initiated annexation of UGA territory until traffic and infrastructure are better addressed; adopted new street standards and purchased some land for parks.
Doors can’t be closed. Growth is reality.
Even though the city has hit its 2030 growth target, it says growth cannot be stopped by altering zoning – as this would legally infringe on the property rights of land owners who want to sell their buildable land. The city also says it cannot afford to purchase all buildable land to stop future development.
According to a previous letter from the city council to citizens, there is a vision they are working toward:
“We intend to manage the pace and appearance of this growth, with more amenities and restaurants, better roads to ease traffic congestion, even better parks, bike and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure… to make North Bend an even more livable community and to capture and maintain your vision of a small town, and to promote its greatest asset of outdoor recreation opportunities.”
A Town Under Construction
So for the foreseeable future, North Bend will be a town seemingly under construction – from new homes to new roads to new roundabouts to new businesses. The growing pains will be there, along with the grumbling and complaints about it.
There will always be stories to tell… about what it used to be like. That’s to be expected. But North Bend has a charm and a heart. Even as it grows, there is a small town community spirit woven through it – and it’s unwavering.