Lawmakers Lift Restrictions On School Siting

Lawmakers Lift Restrictions On School Siting
Photo: Wiki Commons.

The Washington State Legislature this week approved legislation allowing school districts to build new facilities outside of their county’s “urban growth area” (UGA) under the state Growth Management Act (GMA). The state House passed HB 1017 on Tuesday, April 18 in 81-15 vote after several amendments were made by the state Senate; that chamber approved it 37-11 on April 11. The bill has been signed by Senate President Cyrus Habib and sent to Governor Jay Inslee’s desk. The bill is the latest legislation passed this session aimed at reforming GMA regulations restricting development in rural areas.

Relieving Overcrowded School

HB 1017’s prime sponsor is State Rep. Bob McCaslin (R-4). In a Wednesday, April 19 statement, he called the bill a “win-win” and touted the bipartisan cooperation behind it.

“This bill would make a significant difference for overcrowded school districts across the state,” he wrote. “No longer would they be burdened by a one-size-fits-all approach to growth that has limited development outside of urban growth areas. Instead, they could build schools where students actually live, which would open up employment opportunities for teachers and reduce class sizes.”

The bill’s passage comes after several years of unsuccessful attempts to address a growing problem among many school districts: the lack of available land in urban areas to build new schools. The Bethel School District planned to build a new high school outside the UGA, but a 2012 hearings board ruling prohibited them from doing so, because it would serve some urban students. In response, Five school districts filed a lawsuit against Pierce County to circumvent the ruling. School district officials have argued that that UGA boundary is arbitrarily drawn and artificially raises land value, making it costlier to purchase property as they expand to accommodate a booming student population.

Latest GMA Reform Bill

Under GMA, school facilities that serve urban students cannot be built in rural areas. HB 1017 changes that by allowing districts to build in rural areas, albeit under certain circumstances. The county and affected cities must give their approval for the school siting, and the legislation only applies to counties with a population of more than 840,000 but fewer than 1.5 million.

On April 11, State Sen. Hans Zeiger (R-25) told colleagues on the Senate floor that “this bill has been around for several years now, and has had a lot of discussion over those years, and I believe that we’ve come to a good bipartisan solution on this.”

“Coming to this policy, we’ve had a lot to balance,” he added. “The Growth Management Act is not an easy area to navigate in our law. It (HB 1017) strikes that right balance while also recognizing the reality that there are school districts need some new options.”

State Sen. Steve Conway (D-29) was a cosponsor of a similar bill, SB 6426 introduced last year. That bill managed to clear the Senate, but did not clear its first House committee. Conway’s constituency includes the Tacoma School District, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Federal Way that has also complained of insufficient space for new facilities.

“We need to solve these issues, and I’m glad this bill is here,” he said. “We’re trying to take care of kids and schools, and I know that both aisles share a common commitment to really…helping our schools and kids be successful.”

State Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34) voiced similar views April 18 on the House floor. “This process that we set up for schools to be built in rural areas works for all the districts that are looking at this option. This is a process that will work for as many districts as possible in our state.”

Opponents Concerned About Slippery Slope

However, some state lawmakers such as State Rep. Sherry Appleton (D-23) were opposed, arguing that it ran counter to the spirit of the GMA. She also questioned whether the school districts truly lacked suitable land within the UGA.

“We made a promise in 1990 to keep sprawl contained, which we have all these years,” she said. “We made a promise to the people that we were going to do that…and now we are reneging on that promise. This is a slippery slope, and then next thing we’ll hear is somebody saying ‘Well, the school is there, why can’t we build?’ If we don’t pass this bill we don’t have to have that question.”

While acknowledging those who “feel like it’s going to give a green light for all kinds of school districts to go outside their urban growth areas,” Conway argued that their concerns can be dealt with if those issues arise in the future.

“If it doesn’t work, we can always come back here and work on it again ‘til we get it right.”

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