East Gig Harbor’s Future

Derek Young
4 min readSep 9, 2018
This view could change depending on changes to the Pierce County Comprehensive Plan.

During my first year on the County Council I started getting phone calls about a development in East Gig Harbor. At first it was the neighbors, but then from people who saw it across the bay or even from the highway. The site at the crest of the hill, had been cleared for a dense, urban style development where it seemed out of place.

That got me thinking, should East Gig Harbor be part of Pierce County’s Urban Growth Area?

To help answer the question we need to step back a bit.

Growth Management Act 101

The Growth Management Act (GMA) was a series of bills first passed in 1990. It’s sweeping legislation that touches most aspects of local government, particularly land use, but in essence it’s best understood as a way to reduce sprawl, plan for infrastructure and services, protect critical areas, and build sustainable cities.

For our purposes today you mainly need to know that it directs counties to designate Urban Growth Areas (UGA) where urban development should occur. With limited exceptions, this is the area for the bulk of the commercial and job growth, as well as dense residential development (usually 4 unites/acre or more). Sometimes, but not always, the UGA is associated with a city. But in order to be part of a city, whether through annexation or incorporation, the land must first be in the UGA.

Conversely, rural areas are to be preserve for resource lands like agriculture, timber, and mineral, or rural residential development (1 unit for 5, 10, or 20 acres). Commercial activity is to be limited to what was present before adoption of GMA and generally in service of those rural communities.

Jurisdictions in Pierce, Kitsap, Snohomish, and King counties also coordinate our local efforts through the Puget Sound Regional Council. The coordination takes the form of our regional land use plan Vision 2040. We’re working on the update, Vision 2050, as we speak.

The result is a map that looks like this.

Notice the white area outside cities? That’s the Urban Growth Area.

Here’s a closer look at the area in question.

Comprehensive Plan land use designations for the peninsulas.

The amendment, if approved by the County Council, would change the portion of East Gig Harbor shown in yellow (Moderate Single Family) to Rural Sensitive Resource or Rural 10 designation similar to the adjacent areas shaded in white and green.

The case

East Gig Harbor remains somewhat rural for the same reasons I don’t think it’s appropriate for urban development.

  • The topography has a bunch of steep, wet slopes that makes engineering very expensive.
  • Its only connection to the rest of the peninsula is Vernhardson/North Harborview, two already overloaded residential roads.
  • It would be very expensive to sewer making septic systems the most likely solution. That also happens to be one we’d like to avoid in a near shore environment.
  • There are other areas around the Gig Harbor area better suited for urban development with good access to infrastructure.

Questions we need to ask

  • Do we want to see East Gig Harbor develop similar to the residential parts of Downtown Gig Harbor?
  • Is the City willing and able to provide services?
  • Are the residents and City willing to annex within the next 20 years?
  • Can the transportation infrastructure at the head of the bay handle the additional traffic?
  • Would that growth be better accommodated elsewhere on the peninsula?

The Downside

While we have the unanimous recommendation from the City Council and Mayor, as well as the support of the previous Council and Mayor, there are some consequences to consider.

Despite living on the bay for which our city is named, they would no longer be able to annex into the City which means less representation in local government. While we work for everyone in Pierce County, at almost 900,000 people and 1800 square miles, it’s impossible for us to have intimate knowledge of every community. That means one member of seven really understands and is accountable to unincorporated communities versus all seven.

Law enforcement services also looks quite different. Service levels may have changed since I left the City Council, but we used to generally have two officers and a sergeant on duty at any given time. That’s also the minimum staffing standards for the entire Peninsula Detachment covering both peninsulas and islands. Needless to say, response times are quite different. Not for lack of effort, but simply travel times and the number of people served.

The process

For everyone involved I want to assure you the bill in front of committee this Monday and Council next Tuesday, is just the initiation of the process. There will be community meetings, hearings in front of the Gig Harbor Advisory Commission, Pierce County Planning Commission, Pierce County Regional Council all before it returns to the Council where we’ll hear it in committee and full Council next Spring.

In other words, I’m supporting this action to start the conversation. It’s not the end of it. I want to hear from all of you, particularly folks who live in the area.

If you have thoughts you’d like to share before then, the Council will have our in-district meeting at Peninsula High School on Tuesday night, 6pm. This is your opportunity to speak to the Council about any issue that’s on your mind.

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Derek Young

Pierce County Councilmember. Serving Gig Harbor, Fox Island, Key Peninsula, Ruston, and parts of North and West Tacoma.