Community Zoning & Its Purpose

The Rural Separator Zone Designation

The Summit-Waller Community which is known as Pierce County’s Rural Separator separates and buffers the urban intensities of Tacoma, Fife, and Puyallup. The Rural Separator is a low intensity zone designation established along the western flank of the Puyallup River Valley in an area which experts agree would be difficult to urbanize because of the area’s soil, water, and slope conditions. The Rural Separator is the headwaters of the Clear Creek and Clover Creek watersheds. It is an area of heron rookeries, beaver dams, salmon runs, fish hatcheries, commercial and small hobby farms, numerous equestrian facilities, and low to moderate intensity residential development. The Rural Separator contains two of Pierce County’s finest natural regional parks: Swan Creek Park and Orangegate Park. Excellent private and public schools are located within the community. Many people from the urban areas of Pierce County visit the Summit-Waller Community for recreation, farm produce, and for a place to stable their horses and walk their dogs. For these reasons, the Rural Separator community of Summit-Waller is considered by many to be the jewel of Pierce County, a unique treasure appreciated by many citizens across Pierce County.

Location of Rural Separator

The Summit-Waller Community in Pierce County, Washington is zoned Rural Separator which generally provides for 2½ acre residential development and neighborhood businesses. The Rural Separator zone extends south from the Puyallup River to Brookdale Road and east from the City of Tacoma (22nd Avenue) to the City of Puyallup (Woodland Avenue).

Purpose of Rural Separator

The Rural Separator zone was created through community support and effort, the Pierce County Planning Commission, the Pierce County Council, and ultimately approved by the Washington State Growth Management Hearing Board. The Rural Separator serves three primary purposes: First, the Rural Separator separates the Cities of Tacoma, Puyallup, and Fife with low intensity rural uses, hence the name Rural Separator. Without the Rural Separator, Tacoma, Puyallup, Fife, and Summit-Waller would become an amalgamated mass of urban densities covering much of central Pierce County. The Rural Separator zone allows Pierce County to separate the County’s major urban intensifications with a low intensity separator in order to prevent the creation of a Los Angeles style mega-sprawl. Second, the Rural Separator buffers and separates the adjacent Agricultural Resource Lands (ARL) from the urban encroachment of Tacoma and Puyallup. Third, the area designated Rural Separator includes abundant critical areas and resource lands which are also buffered from the cities of Tacoma and Puyallup by the Rural Separator zone.

Description of Rural Separator

The Rural Separator is located south of the Puyallup River near Puget Sound. During the convergence of high tide events, heavy rains, and snow melt on the Puyallup River, the creeks which flow into this farmland area back up and flood. This is an area of beaver dams, bald eagles, family farms, and low intensity residential uses. Pierce County’s effort to preserve prime Puyallup Valley farmland has largely focused on the Rural Separator area south of the Puyallup River. The valley soil in this area represents some of the finest and most productive of any soils in the Puget Sound area. This area is one of the last remaining active farming communities within Pierce County. The prime farmlands in this area were designated Agricultural Resource Lands (ARL) so they would not be encroached upon by the adjacent municipalities of Tacoma and Puyallup. The Rural Separator is critical because it works in harmony with the adjacent valley farmland zone (ARL) and buffers and separates these critical farmland resources from urban encroachment.

Directly south of the valley farmland area, the Summit-Waller Community rises in elevation and is bisected in a south-north direction by at least seven (7) deep canyons which flow with year-around, spring-fed creeks. These canyons are approximately 80-200 feet in depth and are separated by relatively narrow upland areas where residential development may occur. This is an area of streams, commercial fish hatcheries, salmon runs, steep canyon slopes, and low intensity residential uses.

The canyons and creeks of Summit-Waller originate from the upland area to the south. This upland area is punctuated with numerous wetlands and seasonal rivulets. Some of the uses found in this area include: hobby and family farms, equestrian centers, dairy and dahlia bulb farms, limited commercial uses, and low intensity residential uses.

Rural Separator is Important and Unique

Under State Law, residential lot development in all Puget Sound Counties, including Pierce County, must be zoned either rural or urban (RCW 36.70A). This law essentially requires citizens to choose between either an urban building lot with densities of 4-8 units per acre, or a distant rural building lot density of 1 unit per 10 acres. The Rural Separator’s 2½ acre lot intensity provides Pierce County citizens a choice in housing opportunities. King County and Snohomish County also provide its citizens a zone designation similar to Pierce County’s Rural Separator, e.g.: the communities of Bridle Trail and Sky Valley.

The following link is to sources of information should be able to answer most zoning-related questions. Note that Summit-Waller is zoned as Rural.

What Is Allowed in a Zone?

The Rural Separator is Cost Effective Use of Land and Public Services

During 2010, Pierce County spent $40,000 to hire an independent consulting firm to determine whether the Rural Separator was a cost effective use of land and public services. The Summit-Waller Community Association also hired an independent consultant, Tom Ballard and Associates, to conduct a similar study. The results of the Pierce County Report and the Tom Ballard Rural Separator Report each support the Rural Separator as a cost effective use of land and public services.

See the comprehensive 18 page Tom Ballard Rural Separator Report (PDF)

The City of Tacoma also evaluated the Rural Separator area as part of its 1992 Urban Growth Study Area Technical Report. The City of Tacoma’s report concluded that the estimated cost to Tacoma to provide services to this area would be high, and the estimated annual revenues generated from this area would be low. Before the Summit-Waller area could become part of the City of Tacoma’s Urban Growth Area, the Technical Report recommends that a new low density residential zoning district should be explored that is compatible with the Summit-Waller Plan if annexation is pursued for this area in the long-term. This is yet another reason why the Summit-Waller area was designated Rural Separator.