Representatives of Washington cities, counties, schools and citizens groups packed a committee meeting room in Olympia this week to urge that lawmakers amend the controversial Growth Management Act (GMA). Their suggestions included restricting the powers of the state growth hearings board, requiring more investment in roads where high-density development occurs, better facilitating conversion of fallow agricultural lands into jobs centers, and letting school districts meet growth needs with more flexibility.
The GMA, originally enacted in 1991, is seen by a widening array of stakeholders as an impediment to affordable housing in Central Puget Sound, and rural economic development. In certain locales statewide, GMA is seen as preventing the building of new schools needed to meet population growth, state classroom and subject matter mandates.
Issaquah Mayor Fred Butler told committee members the city has deeply embraced the principles underlying the GMA, but nonetheless finds itself badly shortchanged on mitigating the local effects of regional growth due to scant investment by the state of Washington where it counts; on improvements to major roads to ease congestion.
Butler emphasized the city has walked the talk on responsible development by laying the planning framework for nationally-recognized “smart” suburban communities such as Issaquah Highlands and Talus, which accent urban clustering and open space.
He added that new “green necklace” parks ringing the city will add to quality of life and preserve open space, while the Central Issaquah Plan will re-make downtown from single-story commercial with big parking lots “into a more sustainable urban area” geared toward compact new housing, new jobs, transit, and environmental protection.
Mayor: Issaquah ‘Drowning In Traffic’ Despite ‘Smart Growth’
Yet, said Butler, “along with all the success…we still face tremendous challenges. The GMA anticipated the state would invest in regional transportation improvements, but that either hasn’t happened at all, or is years away. Meanwhile, Issaquah is drowning in traffic that starts well beyond our borders,” said Butler. More investments, sooner, in I-405, I-90, and State Routes 18 and 900 are needed, he added.
Other cities sent emissaries to the House committee work session with related concerns. Steve Stuart is City Manager of Ridgefield, the state’s fastest growing municipality near metro Portland. A former Clark County Commissioner and once a GMA and “smart growth” advocate for the litigious environmental group Futurewise, Stuart told the House panel that the emphasis within GMA on preserving farmland doesn’t reflect current realities, and artificially constrains development of suitable land for jobs.
Rural Lands May Need New Life
Many of the designated Urban Growth Areas (UGAs) in Clark County are bordered by land designated for farming although half of it isn’t actually used for that purpose, Stuart said. Lawmakers should alter GMA so local and regional authorities can more easily convert un-utilized agricultural lands near UGAs to office, commercial and industrial use because farmland preservation for its own sake is a drag on the economy, he said. Compensatory trade-offs could include more land preserved for habitat protection, or within UGAs, some stakeholders have said.
Other commenters accented that the stringent land preservation ethic under GMA is also manifest in ever greater difficulties getting water rights for development, because of the interpretation of the law by the state growth management hearings board, and the courts.
Growth Hearings Board Gets Poor Marks
Laura Berg, Policy Director for the Washington State Association of Counties, told lawmakers that counties “are losing property tax revenues” because water rights are being withheld under the GMA process, and due to related rules that four acres must be preserved for every one acre developed. That makes housing less affordable in rural areas, and underscores that the scope of the hearings board needs to be tightened, Berg said.
Stevens County Commissioner Wes McCart told the committee five successive iterations of his elected body have tried to get the county into compliance with GMA on stormwater management and have failed.
McCart said his experience has shown the growth management hearings board’s rules barring direct testimony from expert witnesses need to be reversed. He added he was disturbed to learn from hearings board members that they had not reviewed the entire record of the county’s case. He was also sad to glean during questions their lack of knowledge regarding development basics such as the housing subdivision process. “I’m here to tell you that the hearings board process is broke,” he said.
School Districts In GMA’s Crosshairs
Public affairs consultant Marie Sullivan told committee members about the plight of the Richland School District under GMA. The district has built, is building, or has bought land for 11 new schools in recent years to keep up with population growth. However, it badly needs 50 acres for a third high school and has not been able to find suitable land within the UGA. Sullivan said this is because all potentially suitable parcels are off limits due to endangered species, wetlands, steep hills, public ownership, distance, cost, or unwillingness of owners to sell.
The last most feasible option is near a middle school and adjacent to a sizable housing development, but is on the wrong side of the UGA boundary, “which cuts an arbitrary line through an alfalfa field,” she said.
Sullivan said that adding to the development pressures on school districts in Washington are legislative mandates for full-day kindergarten, fewer students in K-3 classes and a 24-credit high school graduation requirement including three science classes and two labs. The state mandates “will lead to improved student achievement…but, they increase the pressure on districts to find available land,” she added.
Sullivan recommended that for 10 years the state let schools be sited outside of UGAs if no other feasible sites can be found, subject to legislative review and greater joint planning by districts, cities and counties on capital facilities plans. Legislation to liberalize school siting under GMA was introduced in the 2016 session and cleared the Senate but quickly tanked in the House.
A Defense of GMA
In contrast to the many GMA critics testifying at the committee work session, Tacoma Deputy Mayor Ryan Mello strongly defended the Act, saying lawmakers should be careful not to “undermine and weaken” it because “study after study” has shown that dispersed low density development costs local government more in infrastructure and services than it returns to civic coffers via related taxes and fees.
“Jobs are following talent” now, not the other way around as in years past, and today’s in-demand workers want dense, walkable communities, Mello said.
Mello, who is also the Chair of the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) Growth Management Policy Board, went a step further, and said legislators should “think of new and more incentives to implement the letter and spirit” of GMA’s concentrated growth ethos.
The PSRC found itself interpreting the GMA earlier this year in a way that it thought conformed to GMA’s intent, but which caused controversy. The regional board granted only “conditional certification” of required comprehensive plan updates by a number of smaller suburban cities, for purportedly exceeding regional population and housing growth allotments.
PSRC sees the numerical growth targets for cities as ceilings but the cities, citing their interpretation of GMA, see the allotments as floors, or minimums. The hammer wielded by PSRC was a threat of withheld federal transportation grant funds, which pass through the regional agency, to member cities.
The dispute, now in the process of potential resolution, sparked a sharp blowback from affected towns and a pointed rebuke in the Seattle Times of the PSRC’s actions from three major stakeholders. They were Peter Orser, Director of the Runstad Center for Real Estate Studies at the University of Washington; Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties Executive Director Shannon Affholter; and Seattle King County Association of Realtors CEO Russ Hokanson.
The three jointly wrote, “Mandating a lower growth target or not recognizing the inevitable growth that comes from a successful economy can only result in one thing: extraordinary home-price inflation.”
Cooking The Books On Growth Planning Numbers
A related concern is that officialdom is cooking the books on GMA planning calculations in order to constrain growth.
The realtors have stressed the need for state population forecasting methods, which underlie regional growth planning via GMA, to cease lowballing the real influx of new residents. Experts at a recent Master Builders forum accented another need. They want more truthful analysis under GMA of “buildable lands” in high-growth areas which does not, as it does now, inflate how much land is really capable of being built upon.
Further Study Is One Option
The House committee will hold a follow-up session October 18 to hear more on recommended GMA changes, and by the end of the fall hopes to develop recommendations for legislation to update the Act in 2017.
Some members of the Democratic majority on the House committee telegraphed in questions to commenters they were very interested in authorizing further study of GMA overseen by neutral facilitators from the Ruckelshaus Center at Washington State University, who at the work session pitched their services to run a phased statewide probe into how GMA reform can help cities and regions benefit from future growth.
However, the pro-growth state Senate and its Government Operations and Security Committee, which oversees GMA in that chamber, will be more inclined to move faster and reach farther. Also greatly affecting the GMA political calculus will be 2017 legislature’s budget negotiations, which will address a court ordered boost for K-12 education.