Lawmakers: Regional growth plans must acknowledge reality

Lawmakers: Regional growth plans must acknowledge reality
Most counties in Washington state must create 10-year comprehensive plans based on projected population growth. Often those predictions don’t match actual data, but planning documents aren’t required to adjust accordingly. Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-1) wants to change that with a new bill cosponsored by Sen. Hans Zeiger (R-25). Photo: Snohomish.org

As the central Puget Sound region continues to struggle with explosive growth, some state lawmakers say certain provisions in the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA) are in dire need of updating. Bipartisan legislation is planned in the Senate by legislators who say local government planning in their districts needs to adjust when population trends don’t match projections.

“When a 27-year-old-law with 12-14 competing priorities doesn’t manifest itself on the ground in people’s lives the way it was intended…then you need to adjust your course,” Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-1) said. He is the vice chair of the Senate Local Government Committee.

Under his proposed bill, counties would have to release an annual growth monitoring report on their comprehensive plan and include, at minimum, data regarding trends in population, employment, residential development and annexation. A public hearing to discuss the results would also be mandated. If by the four-year mark, 65 percent of the population anticipated for a certain subarea has already been reached, then the county must amend its comprehensive plan accordingly.

The bill stems from problems Palumbo says are plaguing his district, which includes the city of Bothell and parts of unincorporated Snohomish County, such as North Creek, within GMA’s urban growth area (UGA).

The county estimates that since 2010, the population has grown by 8.3 percent to 772,860, or nearly 10,000 residents annually. However, the county envisioned much of the population growth in Everett, with newcomers filling up multi-residential housing. The reality on the ground is that the migration of people moving out of King County in search of affordable housing are buying up single family housing elsewhere in Snohomish.

Mike Pattison is the government affairs director for the Master Builders Association for King and Snohomish Counties. He told Lens that “Everett and other large cities have in their plans huge population increases, but what is far more powerful in land use than planning is market demand. There is not yet the demand for downtown Bellevue/downtown Seattle-style living. And coupled with that, those who want that sort of housing who are working in Seattle and Bellevue have to go to Snohomish county to find that product.”

One of those place is North Creek, which GMA envisioned decades ago would be eventually annexed by nearby cities or incorporated. However, neither outcome has yet occurred. Also, many of those unincorporated areas lacking municipal-level services and sufficient road capacity allow more houses per acre than cities.

One Snohomish city in particular allows only one unit per acre in parts of its unincorporated area, Pattison said. “We’re losing precious land supply” and “undermining those who are going about this with good intentions.”

What this mean is that the parts of Snohomish experiencing the growth aren’t receiving the investments needed and traffic is worsening as a result, Palumbo said. “We’ve got serious, explosive growth problems in North Creek that doesn’t have any infrastructure. You have the county managing it and it doesn’t have the ability to deal with the infrastructure. If annexations aren’t happening and cities aren’t taking densities in and taxing authority, that essentially breaks GMA.”

This also matters when dealing with the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC), which distributes roughly $700 million in federal transportation grants throughout the region. County comprehensive plans go through the planning body prior to receiving those dollars and projects are based on those planning documents.

Its draft strategic update to the Transportation 2040 released last month for public comment contains several projects in Snohomish County, but there are no planned improvements to north Interstate 405 where much of the growth is occurring. “Everybody agrees that north I-405 as soon as you get north of Bothell is a major problem,” Palumbo said. “Are we going to wait another 10 years for the next gas tax? We can’t wait 10 years.”

The problem is that GMA doesn’t stipulate changes in planning when growth doesn’t go as expected, he added. “We look at a 10-year planning document, everybody looks at it and says, ‘We screwed up,’ and that’s the end of it.”

“We are getting light rail,” he added. “We need this plan on dense growth. But that’s 2041. In the meantime, people are making free market choices about where they want to live, and it’s not in Everett.

Although his bill would mandate that counties alter their plans, it leaves the “how” up to local lawmakers, though at least one public hearing on those proposed changes would be needed.

Cosponsoring the bill is Sen. Hans Zeiger (R-25), whose represents Pierce County. He told Lens that “Pierce County has been absorbing a lot of growth from King County” and “we are not prepared in terms of our infrastructure. There’s a lot of new construction going on…to accommodate that growth, but housing is becoming less affordable, and when you have growth management policies that make it difficult to expand where expansion might be warranted, it’s more difficult to deal with.”

That difficulty has manifested itself in tensions between the PSRC, the county council and unincorporated areas where PSRC wants the county to better encourage cityhood in their planning documents, even if those residents aren’t necessarily on board with the idea.

Zeiger says their reform bill reflects a growing consensus regarding the need to amend how cities and counties plan growth. “I’m very encouraged by the bipartisan interest in how we can strengthen and reform GMA to make it work; it was a 20th Century law, and it is overdue for the 21st Century.”

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