New study suggests far more growth in store for Vashon

By Leslie Brown
Feb 13 2007

Bob Powell, a software designer and self-described computer geek, has done something no one on the Island has in recent history: He’s figured out what “a fully built-out” Vashon would look like under current land-use rules and existing water supplies.

And to those who want the Island to remain relatively rural and its agricultural lands to remain intact, his findings are sobering.

After analyzing the Island’s nearly 8,000 legal parcels — including those that currently have homes or businesses on them and those considered raw land — Powell has found that nearly 1,500 parcels in the rural and agricultural areas surrounding the town of Vashon could be developed, a growth of 29 percent.

He’s also found that the very area where current plans suggest growth should occur — the town of Vashon — will witness very little additional development under today’s scenario, due to the town’s current moratorium on water shares.

The result, he says, is scattered, hodge-podge growth in the rural areas and little development in town — the exact opposite of what is spelled out in King County’s comprehensive plan for Vashon.

“The county’s plan was done with much careful thought, and I happen to like and respect it,” he said in an interview. “But the water availability situation is forcing most development to happen exactly contrary to what that plan intends.”

Powell presented his findings to the Vashon-Maury Island Community Council’s economic committee, which Powell chairs, last Thursday night. The small group of Islanders who attended the meeting seemed clearly impressed by the depth and breadth of Powell’s analysis — a research project that he first gan three years ago and that took 250 hours of his own time.

Some were also concerned.

“I really applaud his work. And I was sobered by it,” said Steve Haworth, a commissioner for Water District 19, the water purveyor for the town of Vashon. “He’s raised some real concerns, and I think he’s right in highlighting them. And I’m not sure what we should be thinking or doing about it.”

Tom Bangasser, former head of the Island’s Chamber of Commerce and a Seattle commercial real estate manager, said he’s tried in the past to get a read on the Island’s growth potential and found that the quantity and complexity of the raw data are enough to crash most computers.

“Bob’s study nails down the components of making sound decisions about our future,” Bangasser said. “It’s raw data. But it’s the first time anyone has sat down and analyzed it.”

Powell, 47, doesn’t seem like someone who’d choose to step into the limelight on what is arguably one of Vashon’s most contentious issues. Soft-spoken and self-deprecating, he added many disclaimers as he presented his findings. He also underscored that he could be considered a “complete hypocrite” in sounding the alarm about growth in Vashon’s rural areas, since, as he put it, “I have my five acres in the woods.”

At the same time, Powell presents his work with the confidence of a skilled computer scientist and acknowledges that his manipulation of the county assessor’s raw data provides a rare snapshot of the Island’s potential future.

His goal, he said, “is for the community as a whole to question and discuss the situation.”

“What I’d like to encourage is a shift in growth, not an increase in growth,” he added. “The last thing I want is to find a solution for growth in town and allow growth outside of town to continue.”

To assess the Island’s potential future, Powell downloaded several separate databases from the county assessor’s Web site — about two gigabytes of data and hundreds of thousands of individual records. He then “flattened” the data to create a single record per parcel that includes the parcel’s tax valuation, its number of units, the lot size and other information.

Knowing that many of the vacant lots in the county’s rural zone are unbuildable, Powell then made several assumptions.

• He assumed that a lot had to be at least one-third of an acre to accommodate a septic system for those properties that could obtain water from either a shared well or a public water system.

• He assumed that a lot had to be at least 2.5 acres to accommodate both a septic system and a new private well.

• Because many vacant parcels are on steep terrain or too close to the shoreline to be built on under current rules, he also assumed that only half of the lots between one-third of an acre and 2.5 acres are usable; that two-thirds of the lots between 2.5 and 10 acres are usable; and all parcels more than 10 acres are usable.

The Island has 7,994 individual land parcels; of those, about 5,000 have at least one residential unit on them. Using the size variables listed above, Powell figured that 1,477 parcels — most of them in the rural and agricultural zone — could be developed, representing a growth of 29 percent. If water weren’t a limiting factor in Vashon Town, his analysis shows that 2,153 lots could be developed, a growth of 42 percent.

Powell also took a look at the 85 most recently opened and active permits for residential development on the Island, information he obtained from the county’s Department of Development and Environmental Services. Of those 85 permits, only 17 are for structures in Vashon Town (and of those 17, 16 are for Vashon Household’s Roseballen project). The other 68 are for development in the rural zone.

To further illuminate the situation, Powell looked at zoning on Vashon under the county’s comprehensive plan and the state’s Growth Management Act. While the Island’s rural area is zoned for only one residential unit per five acres, the plan “grandfathers” those parcels that were already created prior to the plan — or 80 percent of the Island’s parcels.

As a result, he said, the county’s zoning of one house on five acres is essentially irrelevant on Vashon.

Powell said his analysis also raises concerns about the affordability of whatever growth happens on the Island, as most of the remaining lots will cost a fair amount of money to develop.

“Many people dream of moving here and having a house with a small footprint. But you can’t do that in the rural area, because you can only build one house per parcel,” he said.

The question now, said Powell and others familiar with his research, is what the Island does with this information. Even if his growth projections are not completely on target, his work underscores a trend many in the Island’s housing community find disturbing.

“I think it will add more credibility to the argument that people have to wake up to the gentrification that is happening here,” Emma Amiad, a buyers’ broker and affordable-housing advocate, said of Powell’s research. “You’re either going to provide affordable housing and have your workforce here. Or you’re going to import your workforce.”

“All of our conversations about growth are more fruitful if we know what we’re talking about,” said Jean Bosch, a real estate agent with John L. Scott and the founder of Vashon Household.

“Let’s have the conversation about growth and the kind of community we want to have, and come to the table knowing we have some hard choices in front of us,” she added.

Powell’s analysis

Read Powell’s findings by going to and clicking on “Vashon property analysis.”

© Copyright 2007 Vashon-Maury Island Beachcomber