The Legacy And Tragedy Of The Sammamish Plateau

NIGHTS on the Sammamish Plateau are treacherous. The rain-swept main drag on the Plateau - the notorious 228th Avenue - is a bumper-to-bumper ride with joggers and bicyclists flashing warning reflectors. Traffic turns in and out of the two shopping centers at either end of 228th. This is life in its most linear form, a single road on or off the Plateau like an aisle in a movie theater with 28,000 people trying to get to their seats.

By my count, more than 200 people were crammed into the Commons Room of Christa McAuliffe Elementary school ("Aim for the Stars") last week to consider articles of incorporation. Should the voters behind the fancy brick entrances to subdivisions form their own city, or should they stay as they are, small villages of winding streets in unincorporated King County? The vote is Nov. 3.

Before the details of the incorporation debate can unfold, something must be said about the Sammamish Plateau and its role in the way this region is governed. Far from being a refuge for quality of life, for intelligent planning, for good land use, the Plateau reveals the failure of King County to match its deeds with its words.

This is no knock on the people who live on the Plateau. They bought their homes in the simple desire to find a good place to live close to exemplary schools and great jobs. But the Plateau is a monumental failure and the failure rests squarely on the shoulders of the King County Council - the current elected members and those past. The Plateau is also a failure of county executives going back at least three elections to the administrations of Tim Hill, Gary Locke and now, Ron Sims.

I blame current King County Council members for the mess they have left the citizens of the Plateau. The Plateau has criminally inadequate roads, not enough water for the development stream now in the pipeline and haphazard planning. Real governance is in the hands of the developers. While some developers care what they build and where, some don't.

In addition to roads, basic amenities - such as parks - are another measure of the failure of county government. The Plateau has been ill served by a county government that has taken millions for its tax base. Elected representatives have enjoyed campaign contributions from the developers, or the desperate citizens groups, or the pro-growth or the no-growth side, but have failed to deliver the basics of responsible representation.

For this failure, I blame every council member who has stuck a toe into governance of the Plateau, especially Brian Derdowski and, by default, Rob McKenna, Chris Vance and Louise Miller. I also blame the Seattle Democrats on the council who are largely stuck in a Seattle-centric universe. Collectively, and perhaps sometimes with good intentions, they have done a terrible job. Yet, I don't think we can expect a single officeholder to stand up and say, "I helped cause this."

Here's one example of the mess the county is leaving behind. One of the worst thoroughfares in the county, not just on the Plateau, is 228th Avenue. Sims promised to improve it, something overdue by about a decade. His new budget calls for over $19 million for two major county road projects, Soos Creek and the Sammamish Plateau. Of that amount, the biggest portion goes to the biggest job, the Plateau. But now that the citizens are thinking of incorporation, council members are making noises that they need not fulfill that budget request since the incorporation lets the county off the hook.

That, in a nutshell, is the legacy and the tragedy of the Plateau: always room for one more cul de sac, never a friend in sight when the bills must be paid.

The day before the cars were winding their way toward McAuliffe school, Sims predicted what's coming if incorporation passes. "The first thing they'll do is pass a moratorium," Sims said. "That's what all the newly incorporateds always do." That's probably true, but the deeper question to ask is why shouldn't they?

While building moratoriums are only a stopgap - and a poor one - that hurts the rest of the county, the Plateau has seen enough fickle land-use planning to last a lifetime. If incorporation passes and if a moratorium is the first thing on the new city's agenda, the true cause for such voter anger is not the developers and not the no-growthers but an ongoing breach of faith by King County Council.

Seen from above in a little two-engine prop job or on the ground through the long corridors of woodlands and subdivisions, the Plateau unmasks one of this region's most cherished fictions. The fiction is that the region treasures its resources and, through the Growth Management Act, has found a way to legislate livable communities. The Plateau shows the depth of that fiction.

Even in the act of self-determination, the people of the Plateau are the subject of false affections. The incorporation vote casts two very different views of the Plateau's future against each other. Each group, intentionally or not, is a surrogate for larger interests. More on that next week.

James Vesely's column focusing on Eastside issues appears Monday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: