North Highline voters clearly decline Burien’s annexation offer

Eric Mathison contributed to this report

As the nation went to the polls on Nov. 6 to decide, amongst many other things, who would lead the U.S. for the next four years, voters in North Highline’s Area Y emphatically declined annexation to Burien, keeping their unincorporated status intact for the foreseeable future.

The culturally diverse swath of land between Seattle and Burien is home to an estimated 17,400 people over 2,045 acres, and includes White Center. As of Nov. 10, there were 3,254 voters saying no to annexation (65 percent), versus 1,766 (35 percent) looking for change.
“The vote was a heartfelt expression from the community,” Burien City Manager Mike Martin said once the results were in. “It removes the cloud of uncertainty for the city of Burien.”

“It clarifies our vision: It’s a good thing to know where our borders are.”

Burien’s goal was to increase their population to 65,000 and expand their tax base while providing city services to the newly annexed area. It was an election that became increasingly contentious over the months leading up to November, with pro- and anti-annexation camps of mixed North Highline and Burien citizens forming and calling each others statistics and promises inaccurate.

Political action committees came together, money was raised and spent, and as it came time to mail in ballots, vacant patches of grass and willing fences became inundated with signs voicing an opinion one way or the other.

North Highline will continue to be governed by King County as a result of the election, although the county has made it clear they wish to end governance over urban unincorporated lands like Area Y.

“We acknowledge the decision of the residents of … North Highline … to remain in unincorporated King County for the immediate future,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said in as statement. “(The county) will continue to do its best to provide services to these areas within the resources available. The mandate of the state Growth Management Act remains unchanged– that urban areas should be in cities, which are in a better position to provide urban-level services.

“It’s going to be up to the residents of these urban unincorporated areas and their adjacent cities to decide if and when an annexation vote will come up again,” he continued. “It is certainly in the interest of the cities to act before the sales tax relief provided by the state expires in 2015.”

Burien said they would be given $5 million a year over ten years in sales tax credit from the state if they annexed North Highline; a critical element in the economic viability of the plan.

Annexation opponents argued that annexing White Center and the remaining North Highline area was not financially feasible for Burien. They cast doubt on whether Burien would receive the full $5 million a year for ten years.

Seattle has also shown interest in annexing North Highline in the past. Burien Councilmember Gerald Robison, the council’s strongest annexation advocate, has stated that Seattle still wants to annex North Highline, Martin said he doesn’t know the intention of Seattle officials leading up the to 2015 tax credit deadline.

There were many other points of dispute.

The opponents estimated taxes and fees on North Highline residents could increase by $400 per year. Martin said net taxes would go up by $140 a year.

Annexation opponents from North Highline worried the area would lose its independence by being annexed to Burien, and take on stricter regulations with business signs and tree pruning. Martin said the city would not actively pursue those codes.

They contended Burien would not expand police coverage in White Center or improve other services, making the argument that homeowners and businesses would take a tax hit with no benefit in exchange, and voiced concern over the city’s ability to support North Highline’s immigrant, low-income and elderly population. Martin shot back that those communities are largely supported by non-profits, such as the White Center Community Development Association, and that would not change.

Annexation proponents on the other hand, argued that annexation would give North Highline residents more of a voice in how they were governed instead of being faced with increasingly fewer services from King County.

Barbara Dobkin, president of the North Highline Unincorporated Area Council, was vocal in her support of annexation while Mark Ufkes, president of the White Center Chamber of Commerce, was a staunch critic of the proposal.

Ufkes declined to be interviewed for this story, but said he would discuss North Highline's decision after all votes have been counted. We will update with his reactions at that time.

“It’s not a good outlook,” Dobkin said of North Highline’s future, listing off a number of concerns including the fire department losing funding over time if Tukwila is successful in annexing the Delta Marine industrial zone, not getting additional deputies for the area, deteriorating roads and parks, the King County permit office moving to Snoqualmie, the potential closure or consolidation of White Center and Boulevard Park libraries (anti-annexation proponents argued annexation had nothing to do with the library decision), and expanding homelessness.

“You need a voice, you need a local government to take care of these issues,” she declared. “I don’t see a lot of hope for this community.”

Asked why the vote was so lopsided against annexation, Dobkin said, “there are a lot of people in the community, a lot of old timers who just want to stay unincorporated. I think the anti-annexation (group) had some influence, but I’m not giving them credit for all of it.

“The notion of staying independent is a misnomer,” she continued. “We are not independent, we are dictated to by the county and we have no say in what the county does to this community or does not do to this community, so how that is independent I don’t know.”

“We’ll see what happens when people are driving out to Snoqualmie for a building permit …, we’ll see where we get when our roads start really deteriorating and we’ll see where we get when everything is just collapsing around us. People might change their minds.”

So for now the residents of North Highline will continue on as unincorporated, just as they have since people started moving into the area at the turn of the 20th century. With Burien unlikely to attempt annexation again and the state’s Growth Management Act looming overhead, two eventual options remain: become a city or join Seattle if they send an invite.

To read more on Burien City Manager Mike Martin's response to the vote, please check out Eric Mathison's story found here.

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