Washington State Lawmakers Move to Loosen Rural Growth Restrictions

Rural counties in Washington state such as Okanogan struggle with higher-than-average unemployment rates. Local lawmakers say loosening the state Growth Management Act's restrictions on rural land could open up more land to new businesses, something SB 5790 proposes to do. Photo: route97.net

Washington state lawmakers are trying to help rural counties suffering from economic stagnation or decline by allowing industrial and commercial growth outside so-called “urban growth boundaries,” as part of their planning under the state Growth Management Act (GMA). SB 5790 would clear a path toward revitalization by eliminating certain planning requirements under GMA. The bill is the latest pushback against GMA by critics, some of whom have also blamed it for causing school shortages and stunting city growth.

“Economic deterioration” in a county as defined by the bill includes:

  • Median household incomes are $10,000 less than the statewide average.
  • A decrease in the county’s median household income, or unemployment rates higher than the state and national average, during any one-year period over the previous eight years.
  • A drop in commercial building permits issued for multiple years within the previous eight years.

Changing Attitude On Growth Management

Proponents testifying at a Wednesday, February 14 public hearing of the Senate Committee on Local Government included county associations, local government officials, and property rights advocates. The bill so far has also received strong bipartisan support; a committee vote February 16 unanimously recommended passing the bill after some amendments were made making some provisions optional rather than mandatory.

The bill’s chief sponsor is State Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-35). Cosponsors State Sens. Vice Chair Jan Angel (R-26) and Lynda Wilson (R-17). A companion bill, HB 1525 is sponsored by State Rep. Dan Griffey (R-35), but has not received a public hearing yet.

Ranking Minority Member Sen. Dean Takko (D-19) told Lens that the bill represents a changing mood regarding statewide growth management policy and its impacts on local economies.

“It’s really apparent when you look at Puget Sound and how well it’s doing, and then you look at some of the rest of the state, there’s some problems,” he said. “We’ve (rural counties) got some of the highest unemployment rates. We have such a hard time trying to develop in rural areas, and a lot of it is just trying to get somebody located here in the first place.”

Takko’s observation matches the most recent state data for unemployment rates in counties such as Pacific, located in his district. At 8.5 percent unemployment, Pacific is far above the state’s seasonally adjusted average of 5.2 percent. King County’s unemployment rate was the lowest, at 3.4 percent.

GMA Impacts ON Rural Economies

Glen Morgan told committee members much of the blame for rural economic hardship can be placed the GMA. He is the Executive Director of the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights.

“The way GMA has been implemented around the state has become just a great way of destroying rural communities and destroying the economic vitality of a lot of communities around the state,” he said.

Lawmaker: UGAs Limit Business Growth In Rural Counties

Under GMA, counties are required to adopt land-use plans and development regulations intended to cluster growth within the urban growth area (UGA). However, Stevens County Commissioner Wes McCart told panel members this creates problem for mostly rural communities trying to bring in new businesses, because it artificially restricts available land.

“If I’m held to standard in which I have to have 6.4 acres per person to have the jobs that I need in my community, it is not going to work,” he said. “Every time we site a business, we have to do so in an urban growth area. The city swallows it up, they take the majority of the tax revenue. Most of those folks live outside of the city. We end up with property owners that have a larger tax burden than a tax contribution to the county coffers.”

In agreement was Chair State Sen. Shelly Short (R-7), who represents a section of Stevens County. “I think there should be allowance for a way to mitigate if the planning in and of itself really creates hardship on an entity to be able to have jobs or encourage growth in their communities and to support their citizens Our locales, they work really hard…to attract businesses and family wage jobs. I don’t want this planning process to be an impediment to that.”

In December 2016, Stevens County had an 8.9 percent unemployment rate. It has also experienced a modest population growth of 40,000 to 43,000 in the last 17 years.

Takko observed that “when you’ve got counties that have the same population or nearly the same population as they had 50, 60, 70 years ago, do you really need all of these things constraining growth, because there is no growth. In some of those smaller counties, what do they (UGAs) really mean?”

Deferring to Local Governments On Growth Decisions

SB 5790 would allow counties experiencing “economic deterioration” to loosen industrial and commercial restrictions in rural areas mandated under GMA, in order to encourage job creation. It would also require the Growth Management Hearings Board defer to local governments under these circumstances.

These changes would enable counties such as Steven to site businesses in existing locations and replace recently lost jobs, said McCart. “This is the struggle we constantly meet. It’s time that we find a way to fix this.”

Futurewise State Policy Director Bryce Yadon told panel members that although the Seattle environmental nonprofit was opposed SB 5790 due to certain provisions, some of which were later removed before the February 16 executive vote, there’s still “a lot we can work with here.”

“We understand the need for economic development in rural areas, so we’re looking through those new numbers and ideas that you have put out there,” he said “We had a long email exchange internally over last week when I saw this bill come up…one of the exciting things was when I got an email back saying, ‘Let’s work with this, let’s see what we can do.’”

Other SB 5790 proponents include the Washington State Association of Counties. Policy Director Laura Berg told committee members that rural communities “want some more options when we’re looking to plan around economic development.”

She added, “We don’t have the same transportation hubs in a lot of our rural areas that we do in our more urban areas. We’re all very different, and we would want to use those options different.”

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