Move To Limit Growth In “Small Cities” Sparks Uprising Against PSRC

Move To Limit Growth In
Covington officials are working to assemble more property for an emerging city center project that already includes several hundred apartments. The envisioned 15-acre development would include retail and civic facilities. It's just one of many projects planned in the fast-growing southeast King County city, to which residents, employers and builders continue to be drawn by affordable land, a vibrant market, and quality of life. Image: City of Covington, Washington.

Taking a visitor on a car tour of his suburban city center, replete with a growing supply of affordable apartments and the beginnings of a dense and multi-use Seattle-style “urban village,” Covington Mayor Jeff Wagner is able to put a fairly fine point on what’s bugging him.

He says it isn’t, in and of itself, the threat from the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) of losing up to a few million dollars in federal grants if the city doesn’t ratchet down growth as PSRC’s aggrieved regional planners in Seattle want.

Growth Goalposts Moved Mid-Game

Rather, says Wagner, it’s that the goalposts have been moved mid-game, and local control usurped. In cooperation with residents and developers the city has engineered well-planned, responsible growth with support from state agencies, according to Wagner. He adds the growth is in response to robust market demand, playing out within King County’s urban growth boundary, and should be cause for accolades, not the blows of a bureaucrat’s velvet hammer.

What were numerical growth target minimums for housing, population and jobs have at PSRC’s behest morphed into growth caps for a group of smaller cities where bargains on housing, retail and office space can be hefty compared to Seattle, Bellevue, Redmond, Kirkland and other pricey Puget Sound communities.

It adds up to an attempt by PSRC to shrink designated growth areas through heavy-handed micro-management, based on outdated and inaccurate population projections, says Covington Community Planning Director Richard Hart.

Avoiding City Lawsuit Exposure From Landowners

Hart adds that the compliance methods that would have to be used include “down-zoning” of higher-density projects to lower density, and clamping down on issuance of building permits. He says this would expose the city to lawsuit threats from landowners who have already made purchases based on evaluations of their properties’ market potential.

Specifically at issue are a series of “conditional certifications” by PSRC of required comprehensive plan updates by some so-called “small cities” in Central Puget Sound, including Covington.

“Conditional certification” is a planner’s phrase of art meaning, “we need to talk.” In this case, about greater growth than desired. Without change or compromise on the classification, the affected cities could lose some federal funds for transportation projects that are funneled through PSRC.

The state’s 1990-vintage Growth Management Act (GMA) mandates that local comprehensive plan updates be done every seven years, and 2015 was an update year. Under GMA, current city growth targets were based on 2010 Census data modeled to a middling growth forecast by the state’s Office of Financial Management (OFM), and then passed over to counties and in Central Puget Sound, to PSRC.

The targets are lightly updated under a “straight line” formula for 2015. That’s a steady, and in this case modest, upward slope that smooths out the spikes of intense market activity like what’s occurring in Covington. Essentially, says Hart, the city was “forced to use 2010 figures in 2015 for the 2016 to 2036” comprehensive plan update.

The Broken Machinery Of Growth Targets

The broken machinery shows in the numbers, Hart adds: the 20-year growth allotment for Covington under GMA, which was previously understood by all parties to be a minimum and not the cap which PSRC now advocates, was for 1,542 more housing units and 383 more jobs in the 2016-2036 window.

However, just from approved or pending projects in the last year, Covington is already anticipating 514 more jobs and 622 pending housing units, Hart reports.

Newcomers to Puget Sound seeking single-family homes used to look in locales including Maple Valley and Issaquah, says Wagner, but now many are aiming at cities like Covington where relatively affordable housing is available, ranging from the mid-$200,000’s to higher. “If people want to come out here, let them live here,” Wagner says.

Median Home Sales Prices of $485,000

There’s data supporting that notion. Combined median sales prices for single-family homes and condos in King County in May were $485,000, an 11.75 percent jump from the $434,000 of May, 2015, according to a spreadsheet issued this month by the Northwest Multiple Listing Service (MLS).

The MLS data also show that housing supply in King County dwindled in May to 1.03 months worth, down from 1.41 months in January. The industry standard is a four-to-six month supply, needed to meet demand and keep prices at least somewhat in check.

Following The Playbook For Smart Growth

On the driving tour, Wagner and Hart accent that Covington has been following the playbook for smart growth all the way.

There’s a $20 million state-approved local bypass road planned to relieve arterial route congestion, a state-approved new hospital coming to meet growing demand, plus the planned conversion of an old gravel pit into a major retail and housing center. There’s the emerging high-density urban village, and steady growth in jobs parked adjacent to the growing mix of affordable and higher-end housing.

Wagner and Hart say such particulars show how to deal with Puget Sound’s distressing housing affordability crisis – one that is pricing young families out of the urban and inner-suburban core.

Watch It, Says PSRC

However, a memo from PSRC Director of Planning Charlie Howard distributed in the agenda packet (pp. 9-11) of the November, 2015 meeting of the PSRC’s Growth Management Policy Board, warns cities within the urban growth boundary to take their prescribed share of growth in housing, jobs, and population: not much more, and not much less.

Howard argues that’s because such actions could worsen traffic and drive development further away from the region’s core “Metropolitan Cities” including Seattle and Bellevue, which are “preferred locations for housing and jobs.”

Howard explains in the memo that although cities, under the state’s administrative code, can plan for more growth “than allocated” by counties and aligned regional planning bodies, the agency frowns upon any small city which would “significantly exceed their adopted growth target” given by central planners.

It’s true that not all cities in Puget Sound have enjoyed enthusiastic reception of major new development, and increased density and population. Vocal opposition has arisen to approved developments in Black Diamond, and to a somewhat lesser degree, on Mercer Island. Rumblings about high-density growth are often heard in Seattle, directed at worsened traffic and sometimes, the architecture of crammed-together town homes.

Blowback Has Been Building

However cities committed to smart growth principles, and some affordable housing advocates, have not taken lightly the PSRC’s position.

In January testimony to the growth board of PSRC, Seattle King County Realtors Housing Specialist Sam Pace, a former president of the Washington Realtors, said, “..to constrain housing in smaller cities largely ignores the existing systemic housing supply deficit” in Greater Seattle and will “force working families to leapfrog over multiple urban growth boundaries in order to commute from housing they can afford.”

Pace added that if PSRC succeeds in significantly restricting market-driven housing and jobs growth in small cities within the urban growth boundary, the forced march to exurbia by newer arrivals would cause “environmental degradation and (a) larger carbon footprint…like a new form of unstated but officially sanctioned ‘climate denial.'”

CO2 and equivalent emissions tied to transportation are greater than those from any other sector in Washington.

In late March, Covington wrote to Howard (p. 3, here) that it has become, according to PSRC’s own criteria, a “larger city” based on combined population and jobs exceeding 22,500. Covington’s current classification as a “small city” restricts what its growth target would be, and the nomenclature needs to catch up with actual conditions on the ground, Wagner suggested in the letter. However, city officials say PSRC’s response was that any such changes will only be made after the city’s comp plan has been processed by the agency.

Ten Cities Write In Protest To PSRC

Then in an April 26 letter to the PSRC’s Executive Board, Covington and nine other “small cities” in King, Pierce and Kitsap counties stated that “since the inception of growth targets, the targets have been considered a ‘floor’ not a ‘ceiling’ and have been administered and articulated by PSRC as such until now.”

The letter is signed by North Bend Mayor Ken Hearing, King County Council Member Kathy Lambert (District 3), and nine more cities across King, Pierce and Kitsap counties. They are Algona, Buckley, Carnation, Covington, Duvall, Milton, Newcastle, Poulsbo, and Snoqualmie. The cities from this group where the PSRC growth ceilings are most at issue, says Hart, are Covington, North Bend, Duvall, Carnation and Snoqualmie.

Growth Caps Will Backfire, Small Cities Argue

The cities write that PSRC is under state law a regional transportation planning agency and has exceeded its authority by trying to tighten the screws on growth in small cities. They conclude, “Placing an artificial cap on housing and employment within city limits will only result in increased growth pressures on the rural areas…(and)…skyrocketing home prices, virtually eliminating any affordable housing options within small cities.”

Lambert, of the King County Council, tells Lens that in her district the high-density development at Snoqualmie Ridge is “beautiful, we need more of that.” She adds, “the idea that an unelected body in Seattle would be telling a city like North Bend what kind of jobs and city they can have is untenable.”

Where it all ends up remains to be seen. Hart says a compromise could occur within the next 18 months. One possible resolution, he adds, is for PSRC to simply extend the conditional certifications to 2020, when the next decennial U.S. Census occurs and fresh population numbers will drive new state projections of growth.

However, needing serious revision is the method OFM uses for future growth projections passed on to Puget Sound counties and PSRC under the GMA, according to Hart and Pace.

Another potential reform which lawmakers could address, says Wagner, is to get back to the baseline understanding about the small city growth targets under GMA. He says that could entail amending the legislation to make it crystal clear that growth targets for small cities are floors, not ceilings.

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