The Washington State House on Wednesday, April 12 overwhelming approved a bill allowing counties suffering from economic hardship to sidestep some of the state Growth Management Act’s (GMA) restrictions on rural industrial and commercial development. ESSB 5790 had previously cleared the Senate 31-18 on February 22. State lawmakers have argued that current GMA regulations often prevent new employers from entering mostly rural counties due to a scarcity of appropriate locations. In addition to reducing high unemployment in those counties, the change could help alleviate traffic congestion and high living costs plaguing more prosperous regions in the state.
Aiding Rural and Urban Communities
One of the bill’s cosponsors is State Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-35). Prior to the April 12 vote, he told Lens that “growth management needs to be altered to help rural areas in this state, where we have room and some of the infrastructure. The state is coming to the realization that the Puget Sound area is bursting right now. The rent is going so high. Maybe the more urban legislators are starting to think ‘Well if the rural area could take up some of the slack, maybe we’ll survive here.’”
He added that with current GMA regulations, “instead of having jobs all over the state…you’re basically doing two things: You’re forcing people to travel great distance to go to work, which creates traffic congestion. Then you’re forcing them to spend hours a day away from their families.”
GMA confines industrial and commercial development to the so-called “urban growth boundary.” Regional lawmakers have argued that often there are no suitable sites within a rural county’s UGA.
Fighting Rural “Economic Deterioration”
ESSB 5790 allows counties with a population of less than 75,000 as of January 2014 to allow economic development opportunities that deviate from GMA guidelines and instructs the Growth Management Hearings Board to defer to these decisions when they’re suffering from “economic deterioration,” which includes but it is not limited to the following criteria:
- Incomes that are at least $10,000 less than the statewide median household income for the same year as established by the Office of Financial Management.
- A decrease in the county’s household median income during any year within the prior eight years.
- The inability of the jurisdiction to add new full-time jobs in sufficient quantities to provide for population increases.
- Decreases or stagnation of economic start-ups during multiple years within the prior eight years.
- Unemployment rates that are higher than the national and statewide averages over multiple years within the prior eight years.
State Rep. Liz Pike (R-18) told Lens GMA restrictions on rural development ignores economic realities. “Isn’t every job valuable, whether it’s in a rural or in an urban area?”
Like Sheldon, she believes the bill will also help urban counties. “We have this rampant growth, for example in King County and Seattle. But because growth management limits the land available for this type of development, the costs go up. So, people flee the city, because they can’t afford to work there and live there. People are forced to move farther and farther out,” but still have to commute back.
Creating New Job Opportunity
State Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber (R-7) told colleagues on the House floor just prior to the April 12 vote that “Washington state is having an economic upturn,” she said. “There are some rural areas that are suffering a downturn, and to see that and to be a part of it, the poverty, the difficulty in the schools…it affects every aspect of our communities’ lives in these areas.”
“Everything that was mentioned, that is why we are here today,” she added. “The number one factor in poverty is economic availability, and in some of these rural areas there are people praying and wishing for the opportunity to pull themselves out of poverty.”
State Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34) made similar remarks. “Economic opportunity is not as available there as it is in other parts. In passing this bill, we’re trying to recognize that and be responsive to that and move forward in a way that allows more economic opportunity in rural counties.”
The most recent state unemployment report, which shows many counties with rates well above the national average. State Rep. Dan Griffey (R-35) represents all of Mason County, which has a seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate of 8.5 percent. He told colleagues on the House floor that “we (the county) are now very impoverished, and it’s broken my heart to watch this beautiful area slowly slide. What we’re doing is we’re giving deference to the rural economic activity.”