Last week, state Rep. Toby Nixon, R-Kirkland, submitted a bill designed to make it easier to create new counties in Washington. Launching a new county has long been a dream of rural secessionists, including those in King County who talk of creating their own entity called Cedar County. Nixon's proposal comes on the heels of new property-rights legislation submitted by Rep. Dan Roach, R–Bonney Lake, that would allow folks to seek compensation for any loss in property value due to government land-use laws (read: environmental protections). Nixon says if the Legislature rejects his plan, it could wind up as a statewide initiative; a property-rights initiative is also in the wind.
Both efforts are born of the seething in suburbs and exurbs, a reaction in part to the perceived insensitivity of Seattle liberals who have been too heavy-handed in imposing restrictions with King County's Sensitive Areas Ordinance. It is also fueled by a lack of confidence in the county and its executive, "King Sims." The movement has gained momentum from grassroots Republican ire over the gubernatorial election debacle. Note that Dino Rossi's home base is East King County and that some of the property-rights movement's biggest proponents are Rossi's supporters.
That said, the revived secession movement raises a legitimate question. There is nothing magical about "39," the number of counties in Washington. Indeed, counties have come and gone over the years. Is there any reason why we shouldn't shake up the map?
King is the state's largest county by population, with 1.7 million residents, and encompasses nearly every socioeconomic and ecological zone. The county has long been run from Seattle, seat of government and the population center, and our view of the region has dominated. Long have Seattleites attempted to control growth in the rest of the county in the name of fighting the Los Angeles–ization of the region. But containing sprawl has largely failed. Even with the state Growth Management Act, sprawl has spilled to the Cascade foothills because the market has wanted it and the GMA left plenty of territory open to development.
As a result, the county's suburbs became edge cities, some of which are now real cities. They have ambitions that must be reckoned with. Bellevue, which first shocked Seattleites with the visible skyline that emerged in the 1980s, has long striven to be more city than suburb and is making good on that today. Redmond and Issaquah are growing and rapidly urbanizing, and their residents have become less concerned with preserving the old character of those towns than with getting the basic kinds of amenities city dwellers want. Start with a Starbucks and next is a freeway interchange. Their spheres of influence have created pressure in previously rural and semirural areas. Indeed, Seattle now resembles less L.A. than the San Francisco Bay area, and our determination to do our civic duty by increasing urban densities and absorbing the region's growth hasn't worked, any more than San Francisco—twice as dense as Seattle—has been able to prevent growth in the East Bay and Silicon Valley.
All this growth has brought us to a place where it's easier to imagine breaking the region into smaller, more manageable pieces, each with its own center of influence. While Seattle has viewed itself as the center of the Pugetopolis urban hub, its imperial approach will not prevail. Edicts—environmental or otherwise—are unwelcome elsewhere. Residents outside the city—much more numerous than those within—have a long, bitter history with King County and Seattle governments. They have clashed over growth, water rights, waste management, taxation, public safety, and transportation.
In addition, King County government—the County Council was downsized last November by the voters, from 13 seats to nine—has a smaller domain to rule as more areas incorporate. This has left the county to provide services to a far-flung, ungrateful population, with those services funded by a diminishing tax base.
The secession and property-rights movement is being encouraged by forces that are pursuing a broader, antigovernment agenda. It's ironic that some supporters, like the building industry, tout property rights alongside rural folks who want autonomy. But anyone who thinks the Building Industry Association of Washington is going to help preserve rural character is smoking crack. They'd like to have their own "red" county in the shadow of the Cascades to exploit, without interference. Mainstream suburban Republicans are finding advantage in fanning rebellion's flames. Even if the Nixon and Roach legislation goes nowhere in Democratic-controlled Olympia, they can score points with the pitchfork crowd.
Nevertheless, there is nothing inherently wrong with seeking to redraw the political map of Washington by forming a new county or streamlining government by getting rid of some old ones. Garfield County in Eastern Washington, for example, has a population of 2,400 people, the smallest in the state. That's fewer people than you need to start a county in the first place. Maybe we could cut costs and taxes by merging smaller counties. In the meantime, unwieldy counties in high-growth areas could perhaps better serve their citizens by breaking up.
Yes, secession would make regional transportation and environmental planning much more complicated; yes, there are people who want to make mischief promoting retrograde agendas. We could wind up with a region that is ideologically gerrymandered. But there is often much to be gained by moving government closer to the people, and if that's what people want, they'll eventually get it.
If King County no longer works, the people will create something that does.