Superintendent calls on Pierce County to reconsider zoning changes

BETHEL SCHOOL DISTRICT — Superintendent Tom Seigel has taken a stand against Pierce County’s efforts to make land zoning changes. By designating more property as Agricultural Resource Lands (ARL) there will be an adverse impact Bethel and several other county school districts.  Today, in a letter to the County Executive and County Council, Seigel outlined the problems that will result from these changes, including higher property taxes and an inability to use available land for future school construction.  A copy of the Superintendent’s letter is available below…

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Dear Pierce County Council Members and County Executive:

The county staff is conducting a process to change the zoning of land to the Agricultural Resource Lands (ARL) designation.  I have serious concerns about the impact of this proposed rezoning. This rezoning will cause changes that will negatively impact four school districts including Tacoma, Bethel, Franklin Pierce and White River by preventing use of lands for the purposes for which they were purchased. Bethel has over 100 acres that will be affected, and Tacoma has over 300 acres.

The current proposal does not recognize that some of the school districts’ land scheduled for rezoning already has facilities and nfrastructure. However, the proposal ignores that some land which does not yet have a structure is effectively designated as a “school facility” site as that site has already been approved by other Pierce County review processes for a future school or other educational function.

Of great concern to the Bethel School District is that this rezoning would prevent building the fourth comprehensive high school needed in Bethel.  This proposal may also have considerable negative property tax implications for Bethel and at least one other school district.  It appears that about half of the proposed zoning changes are in the Bethel School District.  This zoning change will likely result in a decrease in valuation of those parcels rezoned to ARL.  Our staff has already done some review on parcels that are in the same vicinity in our school district.

My Staff compared current assessed valuation of vacant land for R-10 and existing ARL and there is a substantial difference (5 fold) between R-10 and ARL land in the same area. A change in assessed values will increase the tax burdens on virtually all commercial and most residential property owners in Bethel as school districts have set obligations that are collected over the tax base.  The net effect will be to shift taxes to residential and commercial properties, resulting in more reluctance to support school district levies and bonds.  In addition, a decrease in a school district’s tax base results in a lower debt capacity and then the district’s bonding capacity is decreased and, as significantly, our levy rates increase.  I recommend the following:

  1. Remove all school district property from this process as school lands are schools.  These lands have been purchased for public education purposes and should be deemed to be considered public facilities and “essential public facilities” similar to county lands. Further, these lands are of very marginal agricultural value and can have a much greater economic value to the county by providing a place to educate and train future generations.
  2. Conduct a fiscal evaluation to determine how this change will affect the tax structure of the county and school districts’ taxes and the implications for future public levy and bonds and the support for those levies and bonds.  I am not aware of any county study on this important issue.
  3. Conduct a cost benefit analysis to determine the economic “yield” implications of rezoning.  The current process apparently uses soil types as its sole criteria. It ignores that these are marginal soils and will have no real economic benefit. The lands are supposed to have “long term commercial significance”.   We have started researching other jurisdictions and although other jurisdictions may not have yield criteria those jurisdictions have substituted other criteria to realistically determine lands which have “long term commercial significance”.
  4. Slow the process to conduct the fiscal analysis and provide an opportunity for public education and input. This is not a simple change that is being proposed but has broad, long-lasting consequences for school districts, especially Bethel. 5. Broaden the public awareness of the process and implications. Few of the tax payers that will likely have their taxes increased (non-ARL landowners) have been notified that they will be affected.  And those other school districts that may not have land that is being rezoned will be affected yet they have no knowledge of the proposed significant impact.  For example, Eatonville School District and Yelm School District will be impacted by the acreage proposed to be included in those school district boundaries and Eatonville and Yelm will experience the assessed valuation impact as well.

In summary, the current rezoning process for the proposed new ARL designations needs to be revisited to ensure full public involvement and adequate analysis of the complex aspects of this proposal.  Additionally, school district land whether it has structures, infrastructure, playfields, or is vacant for future use should all be removed as these are public facility sites.



Tom Seigel, Superintendent

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