King County sets urban-growth boundary on July 6, 1992.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 8/02/2006
  • Essay 7873
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On July 6, 1992, the King County Council approves an urban-growth boundary required by the recently enacted Growth Management Act (GMA) as a way to prevent sprawling uncontrolled development. The boundary, included in countywide planning policies prepared by a committee of county and city officials, draws a jagged line between the already-urbanized western portion of the county, where all new "urban growth" will be directed, and the rural eastern portions, where only limited future development will be allowed. The line drawn is denounced by both growth-control activists and property-rights supporters, by rural residents who resent controls on their property and by urbanites who do not want more growth in their neighborhoods. Nevertheless, the urban boundary set in 1992 remains in place (with minor changes) in 2006.

Urban-Growth Areas

The state Legislature passed the Growth Management Act in 1990 (with major additions in 1991) in response to voter anger over increasing traffic congestion, pollution, suburban sprawl, loss of open space, and other consequences of unchecked growth. The Act directed the state's large and fast-growing counties and the cities within those counties to agree on countywide planning policies and to prepare comprehensive plans that would guide growth and development and regulate land uses in their respective jurisdictions.

One of the GMA's primary requirements was for each county, working with its cities, to channel almost all new growth into compact "urban growth areas" in order to prevent sprawl, save tax money by sending growth where government services (such as sewer, water, and transit) already existed, and preserve rural areas. Incorporated cities automatically became part of urban-growth areas, while unincorporated land could not be part of an urban-growth area unless it was next to territory "already characterized by urban growth" (1991 Laws). Urban growth (defined as intensive use of land that requires government services and is incompatible with agriculture and other rural or natural-resource uses) was allowed only inside the urban-growth area and prohibited in the rural area, which comprised all of the county outside the urban-growth boundary.

In King County, concerns over growth had been a significant political factor since the 1970s and, as with other requirements of the GMA, the County adopted an urban-growth boundary line in its 1985 Comprehensive Plan before state law required it. This line served as the starting point for the boundary included in the countywide planning policies that the GMA required King and other counties to adopt in 1992.

The policies were developed in 1991 and 1992 by the Growth Management Planning Council composed of 15 county and city officials and chaired by King County Councilmember Cynthia Sullivan. The policies the council proposed in June 1992 shifted portions of the 1985 urban-growth boundary westward, moving about 50 square miles near Woodinville, Redmond, Kent, Renton, and Auburn from the urban to the rural side, where development would be limited.

A Contested Boundary

The urban-growth boundary line identified in the 1992 countywide planning policies runs roughly (with many zigs and zags) north to south from east of Woodinville to east of Auburn. It extends substantially farther east in two places -- in the south to include Black Diamond and the west half of Maple Valley (where the city of Maple Valley later incorporated) and farther north to include the Sammamish Plateau (where the city of Sammamish later incorporated). Separate islands of urban-growth area also include and surround the incorporated cities of Duvall, Skykomish, Carnation, Snoqualmie, North Bend, and Enumclaw.

The inclusion of one other urban "island," an unincorporated area known as Bear Creek on Novelty Hill Road east of Redmond where developers proposed two massive planned communities, was one of the 1992 boundary's most controversial aspects. Growth-control activists and residents concerned about impacts of the proposed developments litigated the issue for more than a decade before a 2005 state Supreme Court ruling finally approved that urban-growth area.

Advocates of controlling growth, many of whom were also disappointed by the inclusion of the Sammamish Plateau in the urban-growth area, were not the only ones angered by the boundary proposed by the Growth Management Planning Council. Other rural residents and property-rights activists bitterly denounced the boundary and rural-development limits that they claimed would reduce property values and deny them use of their land.

Rural residents on both sides of the growth-control/property-rights debate also resented their lack of representation in developing the urban boundary and countywide planning policies -- all 15 members of the Planning Council represented Seattle or other cities from the populous west side of the county. Not all those on the urban side of the line where growth would increase were pleased either. For residents in Federal Way and other areas that incorporated in part to control growth in their neighborhoods, an unexpected irony of the GMA and the County's policies to implement it was that by virtue of incorporating those areas automatically became targets for additional growth.

The Line Is Drawn

Despite the outcry from all sides, the King County Council on July 6, 1992, approved the urban-growth boundary and other planning policies as proposed by the Growth Management Planning Council. The vote was 8-1, with only Republican Kent Pullen (1943-2003), one of two councilmembers representing the bulk of the county's rural area, opposing adoption. Demonstrating the deep divisions within the rural area, the other councilmember from a largely rural district, Brian Derdowski, a Republican like Pullen, was a leading advocate for controlling growth and a supporter of the urban-growth boundary.

Opponents of the policies attempted to force a voter referendum on the issue, but failed to gather the signatures needed to do so. Rural anger over the planning policies and other development restrictions and a feeling that rural concerns were ignored helped fuel a movement (ultimately unsuccessful) to create a new Cedar County out of eastern King County.

As required by the GMA, Seattle and other cities also approved the countywide planning policies, which became effective by October 1992. Along with additional policies adopted in 1994, they guided the development of King County's 1994 GMA Comprehensive Plan. Although there have been minor tweaks over the years. King County's urban-growth boundary remains essentially where it was drawn in 1992.


Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Countywide Planning Policies (Seattle: King County Parks, Planning and Resources Department, 1994); "History and Background of the Comprehensive Plan," King County Department of Development and Environmental Services website accessed July 24, 2005 (; King County Countywide Planning Policies, Updated June 2005,Ibid.; 1994 King County Comprehensive Plan (Bellevue: King County Department of Development and Environmental Services, 1994); 1990 Wash. Laws, 1st Ex. Sess., Ch. 17; 1991 Wash. Laws, 1st Spec. Sess., ch. 32; Quadrant Corporation v. Growth Management Hearings Board, 154 Wn.2d 224, 110 P.3d 1132 (2005); Kathy George, "Vision for Growth Turns Hazy -- Planning Council Delays Key Decisions," April 16, 1992, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, (; George, "Growth Policies Pounded -- County Plan Draws a Range of Critics," Ibid., June 23, 1992; George, "New Growth Policies Are Given OK," Ibid., July 7, 1992; "Growth Policy Critics' Referendum Bid Fails," Ibid., August 21, 1992; Kery Murakami, "They're Talking Secession -- County-Growth Plan Angers Rural Residents," The Seattle Times, July 1, 1992 (; Bob Lane, "County Gives Ok To Growth Policies -- Guidelines Must Also Win Approval Of Cities," Ibid., July 7, 1992; "Several Speak Out Against County's Growth Guidelines," Ibid., July 17, 1992; Himanee Gupta and Kery Murakami, "Growth Panel Oks Plan For County -- Finding Tax Dollars To Pay For Proposal Will Be Next Goal Of Elected Officials," Ibid., May 26, 1994.

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