SKAGIT COUNTY, Wash. -- A recommendation to merge two Skagit County towns is getting mixed reaction from people on both sides of the river.
Among the draft proposals put forth by the Envision Skagit Citizens Committee Thursday is a recommendation that Mount Vernon and Burlington consolidate into one city in an effort to spur urban growth while protecting the area's farm industry.
Don't go changing all the signs just yet. The plan, which would still have to be approved by local leaders, is part of a 50-year vision of the county.
But for many residents, the idea of a "Mount Burlington" flies in the face of a cross-river rivalry that's nearly as old as when the towns were established at the turn of the last century.
"When we go against Burlington, the football teams the soccer teams, everybody goes," said Joanna Sanchez, a Mount Vernon High School student, because of course we want to be better than them."
"I don't see it happening," said Burlington resident Amy Whaley. "I just think there's too much a difference between, I mean Burlington is Burlington and Mount Vernon is Mount Vernon and it's been that way for so long."
But the committee said it's exactly those differences that make the rivals especially compatible for a merger, one they expect would help accommodate Skagit County's expected boom in population over the next few decades.
"Where should we put 100,000 people in the coming 50 years?" said committee member Peggy Flynn.
"This is something that may take many years to accomplish, may not happen at all, but at least we can get the conversation started," said committee member Cory Ertel.
Bottom line, they believe Burlington has a larger commercial tax base and agricultural region, which will complement Mount Vernon, which already has a larger population and has more room for residential expansion.
And frankly, not everyone is against it.
"I think they'd be stronger together," said Karen Louise, who owns farmland in unincorporated Skagit County directly west of Burlington.
The merger was just one recommendation in a series of plans for Envision Skagit 2060, which the 12-member citizen committee presented in an open house in Burlington on Thursday.
"What do we need to do put ourselves in the most competitive place possible 50 years out?" asked Ertel.
"People here cherish and value the farmland, first and foremost, there's just an incredible support for our agricultural basket here," Flynn said.
The other suggestions are outlined in the draft proposal, which in final format will go before County Commissioners, City Mayors, and the Envision Skagit Steering Committee:
- Establish a regional alliance and a unified approach to Skagit County’s growth, development and conservation of natural resources.
- Modify the Countywide Planning Policy population distribution goals, directing 90 percent of new population growth into urban areas and 10 percent to rural areas (currently, the split is 80/20).
- Reduce sprawl by keeping "urban growth areas" from expanding into agriculture lands or floodplains. This recommendation also pushes for walkable neighborhoods and redeveloping historic downtowns.
- Establish tax revenue sharing and tax benefits for industrial lands; also, designate 1,600 acres of new industrial land for future use.
- Redevelop existing cities in the floodplain, including Burlington and Mount Vernon, into mixed-use urban centers with stricter building codes, evacuation plans and an improved flood control system.
- Skagit County should begin identifying lands for agricultural zoning, to help strive for "no net loss of acreage" and maintain agricultural productivity potential for future generations.
- Double funding for the Farmland Legacy Program, which buys development rights in voluntary sales to speed up the permanent protection of agricultural land.
- Prioritize floodplain purchases and development rights transfers to limit as much residential/commercial development in the Skagit and Samish River floodplains as possible.
- Create a long-range "green infrastructure" conservations plan for Skagit County.
- Seek state, federal or international designation for Skagit Valley as a Cultural and Natural Heritage Site.
- Collaborate to protect and restore Skagit River’s salmon and steelhead trout runs, as well as similar fish and shellfish populations in the Samish River, tributaries and along the shorelines.
- Maintain current pace of habitat restoration in the middle Skagit River.
- Avoid "fully contained communities" in Skagit County in most cases, instead locating new urban development within or adjacent to existing urban areas.