West Seattle To Secede? -- Angry Residents Await Ruling On Urban- Growth Plan

West Seattle has become "Pest Seattle."

At least that's how some city officials view a vocal band of West Seattle residents who not only are mounting a legal challenge to the city's "urban village" growth-management plan, but are threatening to secede if they don't get their way.

For nearly a year, the West Seattle group has hammered away at Seattle's comprehensive growth plan, accusing the city of "social engineering" and dishonesty, saying it has been making West Seattle a dumping ground for an unfair share of development.

Tomorrow, the Central Puget Sound Growth Management Hearings Board is to rule on the challenge. If the group, called the West Seattle Defense Fund, prevails, it could blunt plans to channel growth into four urban villages in West Seattle and 40 such proposed villages citywide.

Even if the board upholds Seattle's comprehensive plan by ruling that it complies with the state's Growth Management Act, the group will have made a big dent. Sentiment against urban villages is growing, in an urban version of the rural property-rights movement that is prompting numerous groups to try to secede and start their own deregulated fiefdoms.

Some West Seattle residents are talking about seceding as well, buoyed by legislation that would make it easier for them to leave Seattle. Rep. Mike Heavey, a West Seattle Democrat, is piloting the bill through the Legislature, meeting unexpected success and subduing snickers about all those wild-eyed radicals in West Seattle.

"We're not anxious to get out," explains Charles Chong, a leader in the West Seattle Defense Fund. "But if things (with the city) do not change for the better, I would be for it."

It's a veiled threat - the hammer that West Seattle has long desired against City Hall. In this community of about 80,000 middle-class workers, a good portion are second-, third- and fourth-generation West Seattleites.

Animosities with Seattle stretch back to the days when busing was imposed on families that had strong, generational ties to local schools.

That was compounded by the city's reluctance to build a new fixed-span bridge linking West Seattle to Seattle, to replace drawbridges that slowed access to the community. Disaster finally forced the city to act when, in 1978, the freighter Chavez smashed into the north span of the old Spokane Street Bridge, freezing it in an upright position.

Even then, it took the city six years to build a new bridge.

Such slights may have fueled the most recent spat over urban villages. The city plan calls for four in West Seattle, outraging Chong and other activists who say West Seattle is a "dumping ground" for growth that will spoil the tidy neighborhoods.

Sixty-eight percent of the community's homes are single-family residences, compared to the city's average of 51 percent. Many of the sturdy but simple homes have magnificent views and are mere minutes from Alki Beach or Lincoln Park.

The business districts are concentrated in bubbles along California Avenue Southwest, a long strip that features a bingo hall, bridal shop, pharmacy and storefront cafes. The La Grace fashion shop that anchors the intersection at Southwest Alaska Street has been a local landmark for 41 years. It's not fancy, but then, not much of West Seattle is.

The fight was on

And therein lies the rub. When residents learned that West Seattle was earmarked for four urban villages, they quickly compared that against the city's more well-to-do neighborhoods and, lo!, Magnolia, Laurelhurst and Madison Park weren't targeted for any urban villages. The fight was on.

"I've accused the City Council of segregation," Chong says.

The city bristles at such talk, saying it's unnecessarily divisive. Officials say urban villages were put in areas already zoned for multi-use businesses and housing.

Existing business districts, such as the ones along California Avenue Southwest in West Seattle, can naturally accommodate more growth than areas in Magnolia and Laurelhurst, which are more residential and don't have infrastructure in place for more growth.

"This was based on existing zoning," says Mark Murray, spokesman for Mayor Norm Rice. "The comprehensive plan does not up-zone a single acre in West Seattle or anyplace else in Seattle.

"The ironic part of all this is West Seattle counts for 18 percent of the land area and 15 percent of the city's population, but the comprehensive plan calls on them to receive only 10 percent of the projected growth."

That message has reached some West Seattle residents, including longtime activist Margaret Ceis. She is frustrated by Chong's group, saying it has overlooked the plan's goal to let neighborhoods do much of their own planning. And she questions the opposition's insistence that urban villages will devalue surrounding properties because they include low-income housing, which leads to crime.

"I think that's being used as a scare tactic," she says.

An original, `real' urban village

Chong and others persist, saying urban villages will shatter West Seattle's small-town charm by bringing in more people, traffic and crime.

He is echoed by longtime resident Dick Barnecut, whose family has run a Texaco station on Southwest Admiral for 60 years.

"West Seattle was a real urban village before they created the word, and they don't need to change it a bit," he says, seated inside the old brick station, wearing a red sweater with a Texaco star on it. "I think it's a political farce. It's unnecessary and unwanted. The whole exercise is so brazen it insults the people's intelligence over here."

Nearby, at the Blue Mist beauty salon, owner Suzy Tsuneishi has put a red sign in her shop window warning against urban villages.

"There's no argument that we need to accommodate growth," she says, "but why weren't urban villages dispersed more evenly throughout the city?"

A patron having her hair done agrees: "We're tired of having things shoved down our throat."