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Booming City Replaces Sleepy Campgrounds in America's Northwest

In a backwoods spot known as The Plateau in northwest Washington State, people farmedthe open land and built cabins and campgrounds along pretty Lake Sammamish. They rented canoes and fished for kokanee salmon, a small and tasty species unique to that lake. As late as 1990 it was, as one longtime resident told VOA, really rustic — the sticks, a day trip away from bustling Seattle on narrow, winding roads.

Then, seemingly overnight, as big corporations such as Boeing andMicrosoft prospered in the metro area, people by the thousands rushed into the woodsy, unincorporated Plateau and built homes. By 2000, its 300 residents had exploded to 30,000.

Jack Barry, a career school administrator who had moved from arid Arizona to rainy Washington when his wife took a new job in the area, was one of the newcomers.

"Where we lived there appeared a great big sign that read, 'Soon to be incorporated into the City of Sammamish,'" he recalls. "And I looked over at her, and I said, 'Honey, if this area becomes incorporated, I'm going to run for the city council.'" She said, 'Why would you do that?' And I said, 'Because I think my background in finances and public services would be helpful in setting up a new city. That sounds real exciting to me, and I want to be a part of it."

An earlier, 1992 attempt to form a city had failed. Kathleen Huckabay, a certified public accountant who, with her husband, had moved to the area from Chicago six years beforehand, remembers that people feared that city status would bring even more uncontrolled growth. They believed that remaining an undefined part of King County might preserve the rural ambiance.

What they rapidly recognized, Huckabay says, is that the county was more than happy to encourage development up here, but didn't follow that with dollars. "This, after all, was farmland and open space, so it was a great place to allow development to occur. And they didn't make any investment in terms of infrastructure, whether it was parks or whether it was roads."

The community began to recognize that the county saw them as a "cash cow." For many years, she says, they were paying millions of dollars in county taxes without getting equal services.

So she and others regrouped, and in 1998, voters approved the idea of forming a new city that would begin life the following year. They called it Sammamish, like the lake. Huckabay and Jack Barry were among those elected to the original council, and they serve to this day.

Sammamish, which means hunter people in the language of the Indian tribe that once settled there, has seen rapid growth in its first 10 years. Its population has jumped by 25 percent, to 40,000.

That's a concern to people like Suzie Wiley, who in 1998 had come with her husband and three children to what seemed like "a little bit of heaven in the trees."

She worries that the city will get so big they will lose that, and "the kids won't be able to walk to the park by themselves and go to the lake, and it will be too overwhelming to navigate the streets to get to the Fourth of July [Independence Day] celebration." She says part of her would like to "pull up the drawbridge," and prevent others from moving to Sammamish. "But there's still space. We can still welcome a few more. But I don't know how many more."

No more is The Plateau a simple cluster of crude lakeside cabins. The average Sammamish resident today lives in a $600,000 home and brings home more than $100,000' pay each year.

The new city chose what's called a council-manager rather than strong mayor form of government. City council members take turns serving in the largely ceremonial position of mayor. A professional city manager, hired and directed by the council, runs the day-to-day affairs, much as a chief executive picked by a board of directors runs a corporation.

Ben Yazici, a Turkish native who moved to the area to earn an advanced engineering degree, is Sammamish's city manager. For years he hired staff, turned a rural highway through town into Main Street, and contracted police and fire services.

Then, he says, one day at a conference on the East Coast, he thought, "We can build a storm drain system or the sewers. But are we building a community? Are we creating a sense of place?" That, he says, has always been the goal: to build a community, create "a special place that people have owenership in."

With that in mind, Yazici says, "we've put more emphasis on community events: farmers' markets, the Fourth of July celebration, summer concerts, allowing our citizens to interact with each other."

As his deputy, Pete Butkus, puts it, "It took a lot of work to make The Plateau a true community, where people thought of themselves as members of the Sammamish community, not just their school district or their neighborhood homeowners' association."

Even frequent critics of the town's leadership seem to like the city that emerged. Mike Collins, who lives on Lake Sammamish, has battled the planning commission over the concrete bulkheads that protect his property and others from high waves in the blustery winter. The commission argues that bulkheads lead to beach erosion and spreading silt that clogs spawning beds. But Collins says he's still glad he supported incorporation into a city, governed from its own city hall rather than a high-rise county office building far away in downtown Seattle.

"A lot of values I share in common with my neighbors," Collins says, "whereas Seattle may have a different viewpoint on an issue." And Seattle has different issues of concern. "You know, 61-meter [200-foot] limits on a skyscraper are a big deal over there. We don't have any 200-foot skyscrapers."

Sammamish has a modern city hall, surrounded by green space and a skateboarding park instead of the drab old storefront in a shopping center where five or six temporary employees got the city started.

Sammamish now boasts 70 employees, three high schools, six large parks, three lakes, and all kinds of places of worship — including a new Krishna temple that everyone calls the Pink Palace.

Sammamish is 88 percent white, and Asians - many of whom hold technical jobs at Microsoft and elsewhere - are the largest minority at about nine percent.

To top off their big 10th-anniversary celebration on City Hall Plaza in August, residents learned that Money magazine had ranked the almost-new city of Sammamish 12th on its list of the 100 best places to live in America.

Read more of Ted's personal reflections and stories from the road on his blog, Ted Landphair's America.