One topic that we haven’t discussed much this session is annexations. We haven’t made much progress on improving annexation issues for counties over the last few years and yet it’s more important than ever.

And so we tuned in on Thursday (2/13) night when ESHB 1598 was voted out of the House and sent over to the Senate.

ESHB 1598 is a hold-over proposal from the 2019 session. It would permit an additional form of annexation for code cities beyond the current methods contained in statute. Under this new method, code cities and counties may jointly initiate an annexation process for unincorporated territory by adopting an interlocal agreement.

The bill includes several stipulations for the interlocal and requires that the legislative body of each entity hold a public hearing, separately or jointly, on the agreement. If, after the public hearing, it is determined by each body to move forward with the annexation, they may do so by ordinance. Perhaps most importantly, this action is not subject to referendum.

Many GMA-planning counties have struggled for years with annexation concerns.

Under the GMA, counties must designate urban growth areas (UGA’s), which are the 20-year growth boundary for a particular city. Development within such UGA’s is supposed to be to an urban standard, with urban density and urban services. Utilities provided by the city can be, and usually are, extended into these areas to serve developments. Many counties and cities coordinate their zoning and development regulations in UGA’s, enforcing urban-style development requirements. This includes building urban roads, installing sidewalks, installing stormwater drainage and treatment infrastructure, building parks and installing street lighting.

The intent of the GMA is that as development occurs at urban levels, those areas will be annexed by the adjacent cities. But the results have not matched the vision of the GMA.

Counties have required that UGA’s be developed to an urban standard. These neighborhoods are densely constructed, with urban services, and they are costly to maintain. But they aren’t being annexed, especially the residential areas.

Counties, who typically manage rural infrastructure and provide rural services, aren’t equipped or funded to maintain these areas.

ESHB 1598 takes a small step toward a solution for this problem.

One of the main reasons cities say they don’t annex residential properties is due to the risk of referendum. A city doesn’t want to go to all the time and expense of annexing an area only to have it overturned by the voters. Unfortunately, referendums overturning annexations are common.

To allow voters to overturn an annexation in a UGA, but still receive all the benefits of urban services, means that the rest of the residents of the unincorporated county pay to subsidize that higher level of service while receiving nothing in return. And those who live in the UGA and enjoy the benefits of the higher service aren’t paying their fair share.

It’s understandable that residents who live in these areas may not want to be annexed. They get the best of both worlds if they want more services and less cost. But others must pay instead.

ESHB 1598 provides a strategy to help right that wrong.

While we still support and hope to achieve broader reforms for annexations, this is a good first step.