More Growth and Development on the KP

Data from Pierce County shows what is allowed and what the future might hold.


As the pandemic wanes, real estate development continues its recent rise on the Key Peninsula, seemingly despite planning restrictions limiting population density. But the rural zone designations that govern the peninsula are not as straightforward as they seem.

Over 200 residential building permits were issued each year for the KP in both 2004 and 2005. A significant decline occurred during the recession, followed by an average of about 150 per year over the last five years.

But during the first two months of 2022, 40 residential building permits were already accepted or issued.

The Key Peninsula is 38,605 acres and has seven land use designations outlined in the Key Peninsula Community Plan. Residential 10-acre zones (R10s) account for 64% of the land; 22% are rural sensitive resources (open space corridor, wetlands, stream systems); 6% are park and recreation land; and another 6% are farms. The remaining 2% are designated to agricultural resource, rural activity center and rural neighborhood center.

R10 zoning intends one home per 10 acres but allows up to two if at least half the acreage is designated as open space, according to Sean Gaffney, a long range planning manager at Pierce County Planning and Public Works.

For example, the gated community called Peninsula Meadows located at the intersection of Tiedman and Herron Road NW has offered lots of 2 to 2.5 acres for sale for years, complete with house plans. Several new homes south of Evergreen Elementary School were recently built on parcels of similar size.  

Gaffney said that Peninsula Meadows is the result of a more complicated subdivision, which required a public hearing. Half of the original 55-acre parcel was set aside for open space, allowing 11 homes to be built on the remaining land.

A map of parcels on the Key Peninsula shows hundreds of lots that are about a quarter of an acre in communities such as Lake of the Woods, Taylor Bay Estates and Palmer Lake. Those were all established long before the Washington State Growth Management Act was enacted in 1990. The same is true of many existing parcels of less than 10 acres. Some of those, such as near Evergreen Elementary, are now being purchased by builders due to growing demand.

For another example, the duplexes under construction on 5 acres at 13819 Key Peninsula Highway NW are designated as senior housing, an approved use in a rural neighborhood center. (See “Permitting Approved for Senior Housing Duplexes on KP Highway NW,” KP News, June 2019).

Exactly how much more development can occur is not entirely clear.  

According to Planning and Public Works long range planning manager Angie Silvan, growth may be contained by expense. Costs for driveway or road access, well and septic design and installation would likely be prohibitive in many areas.

The number of approved wells may also be limited, according to Leigh McIntire, Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department onsite sewage program manager, “because of water rights, capacity and water quality issues.” The main water quality concerns are chloride and arsenic; saltwater intrusion has also been detected in several shoreline locations. McIntire said that septic design can be a challenge due to poor soil quality and surface water.

The Growth Management Act was passed by the legislature in 1990 to counter the threat of uncoordinated and unplanned growth to the environment, quality of life and sustainable economic development. It called for protecting critical areas and natural resource lands while concentrating development in defined urban growth areas, with a requirement that they be large enough to accommodate expected population growth for the next 20 years.