Mercerversary: A tale of two cities

Independent-minded, stubborn Islanders resisted attempts to consolidate or incorporate for years

On July 5, 1960, Mercer Island citizens finally voted to incorporate the city of Mercer Island. The entire Island became its own municipality, except for the business district, which voted one month later to become the town of Mercer Island. The Island operated under two local governments until a merger in 1970. Mercer Island is located in Lake Washington, east of Seattle and west of Bellevue and other towns of the Eastside.

For most of a century, Mercer Island residents enjoyed rural life, distanced by water from the hustle and bustle of nearby Seattle. The opening of the East Seattle bridge in 1923 allowed easier access to the mainland, but the opening of the Lake Washington Floating Bridge on July 2, 1940, brought progress to the sleepy community. An attempt was made to incorporate the Island in 1945, but voters turned it down.

After World War II, Mercer Island saw a rise in population. Removal of the floating bridge tolls in 1949 brought even more new residents. In 1940, there were 1,200 people living on the Island. In 1950, the population was 4,500. Three years later, that number had nearly doubled.

As an unincorporated community, services such as police and fire protection, road construction and maintenance, and sewage disposal were handled by King County. Population growth on the Island was spreading the county thin. County government at the time was set up to govern rural areas, and northern Mercer Island was rapidly becoming urban.

The Island was split into two factions — newer, younger residents who wanted all the public amenities that post-war America had to offer, and older, “before bridge” residents who were reluctant to change. Some long-time residents didn’t even want a shopping center, opting instead to drive all the way to Bellevue or Seattle for goods and services.

In 1953, voters were again presented with possible solutions to the challenges facing their growing community: annexation to Seattle, incorporation or maintaining the status quo. Most opted for the status quo. Not soon after, crime increased, water pressure decreased, and sewage disposal issues became somewhat more noteworthy.

Nevertheless, more and more people and business owners saw Mercer Island as the premier place to live, work and raise families. It was close to Seattle, yet seemed so far away.

By 1960, the population had ballooned to nearly 13,000. More than 40 businesses filled the business district, but lack of coordinated planning resulted in haphazardly arranged stores. Local progressives felt that this was due to the lack of local governance.

Rather than battle long-time residents, property owners in the 70-acre business district planned amongst themselves. Without fanfare, they filed to incorporate their own district as the town of Mercer Island, through an election to be held on Aug. 5, 1960. It didn’t take long for the rest of the Island to find out. Heated debates ensued.

Community meetings were held, and it was decided that an all-Island election should be held first, before the town incorporation came up for a vote. The unprecedented case came up before the Superior Court, which ruled for an Islandwide election to be held on July 5. The vote would be to incorporate everything except the proposed town into a new city of Mercer Island. Matters had become complicated.

Pro-incorporation residents on Mercer Island spread the word that if the town incorporated but not the city, greater problems would arise than ever before. They mounted a campaign to convince the Island’s 5,895 registered voters that united self-governance was a better alternative than fractured governance or continued county oversight.

Even though population growth had changed the Island, there were Mercer Islanders who longed for old rural days — especially on the South end, away from most of the development. Some folks feared that cocktail lounges, supermarkets and bowling alleys were not in Mercer Island’s best interest. Nevertheless, 1,835 residents voted for incorporation, and 1,027 were against. On July 5, 1960, the city of Mercer Island was born.

Over the next month, new city residents urged potential town residents not to incorporate, but many business district property owners felt that they were being coerced to join in with folks who had wanted nothing to do with them in the first place. Others thought they should incorporate and then annex to the new city. When Aug. 9 rolled around, a small group of voters entered the polls and created the town of Mercer Island within the boundaries of the city of Mercer Island.

In one month’s time, Mercer Island had gone from an unincorporated Island to a community with two self-governing municipalities, one inside the other. Some petitioned for the larger city to annex the town, but the state Supreme Court ruled that annexations of areas with a population of under 2,000 was unconstitutional.

A bill was introduced in the state Legislature to allow cities to consolidate towns wholly within their boundaries, but it went nowhere. Then, an annexation petition was circulated, but not enough signatures could be gathered. Debates continued to a lesser degree, while each municipality worked to improve its own lot.

For the next 10 years, Mercer Island had two governments. Each operated well enough, as more people flocked to live on the Island. Notwithstanding its bizarre governance, it was quickly gaining status as an affluent, but affordable, place to live.

Both town and city shared services between themselves and paid for the use of others. Obversely, they both dealt with problems caused by the disunification of the Island. Over time, both sides eventually saw the advantages of merging. They did so by popular vote on May 19, 1970.

By Alan J. Stein, July 23, 2002, Museum of History and Industry, Used with permission.

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