In recent years, major development efforts in Washington state have floundered due to environmental regulations that in the past would have stymied major infrastructure projects or iconic structures. It’s a situation that a former Washington senator attributes in part to the state’s aggressive approach to state policy and use of federal laws coupled with political polarization that leaves little room for compromise in the legislative arena.
Two years ago, the federal government and Washington thwarted plans for a coal export terminal at Cherry Point in Whatcom County. After years of protracted wrangling, in 2017 Governor Jay Inslee’s state Department of Ecology denied water quality and shoreline permits for the Millennium Bulk Terminals (MBT) in Longview, prompting the company to file a lawsuit to address the issues with the permitting process. Similar opposition has occurred with the Vancouver Energy terminal project, expected to create 320 full-time jobs and $2 billion to local and regional economies.
Likewise, developers have noted the ongoing difficulty related to permitting and building for increased density in the Seattle metro area that is needed to support the influx of newcomers. They attribute the challenges to local zoning and state land-use policies such as the Growth Management Act.
It’s a different atmosphere than what former Republican U.S. Senator Slade Gorton experienced during his tenure in the state legislature in the 1960s. A retired Air Force colonel, Gorton represented a Seattle district in the legislature from 1959-69, later serving as the state attorney general and representing Washington in the 1974 Boldt decision concerning tribal fishing rights. He went on to represent Washington in the U.S. Senate from 1989-2001 and now heads the Slade Gorton International Policy Center.
Gorton told Lens that highway construction, notably Interstate 5, is the “greatest single example of the old way of doing things. (It) got built with relatively little controversy over it” in 1956.
And the Space Needle, built for the 1962 World’s Fair and formerly the tallest structure west of the Mississippi River at 605 feet, was funded and constructed by a private group of investors. Construction concluded in April 1962, and “from the idea of it to its completion, was maybe a year,” Gorton said. The total bill: $4.5 million; $37.6 million when adjusted for inflation.
Unlike today, “They came up with this idea…and they had no problem getting permits to build,” he said.
In fact, Gorton said the Seattle City Council at the time was accommodating. “The people who built the Space Needle go to the city council, and the council said, ‘How can we help?’”
That pro-development attitude was also reflected statewide, Gorton said.
In 1959, he opposed construction of the Evergreen Point Bridge (state Route 520 Bridge), albeit on technical grounds, as he took issue with how it was financed. “Now…there’s plenty of financing around the world. It’s the enviros who stop it…There were no environmental statutes in the state then that would give you a leg up on trying to stop a big infrastructure project.”
However, the State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the bridge construction, as he sees it, simply because they wanted to get it done and over with.
However, Gorton attributes much of the success surrounding the anti-development efforts of today to issues with federal policy.
“Most of the longest battles…center around the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) about impact statements and the like. The reason for that is “state environmental laws pretty closely reflect federal and sometimes do go further,” particularly in west coasts states such as Washington, Oregon and California.
And one prime example of that type of state-level overregulation is the denial of water quality and shoreline permits for the Millennium Bulk Terminals, a decision made by Inslee based on state law.
“The way he decided that – no big project could ever be built in the state,” Gorton said.
Even with state policies, “any changes in environmental statutes would be impossible” today due to the political composition of the legislature, which is currently controlled by the Democrats who have narrow majorities in both chambers.
Along with that, observers have also noted the growing urban-rural divide between the parties, a situation Gorton said didn’t exist when he was a legislator. While he represented an urban Seattle district as a Republican, “there were also a large number of Democrats from the rural parts of the state. Almost all of the rural parts of the state that were timber-orientated were heavily Democrat.
“Not today. No Republican has to pay the slightest attention to the city of Seattle and usually runs against Seattle. No Democrat from Seattle has to pay the slightest attention to the needs of eastern Washington and southwest Washington. And they don’t. I don’t think there’s any voting overlap.”
He added: “The most liberal Republican in the state legislature is probably more conservative than the most conservative Democrat, and vice versa. That was not true when I was there. I was a pretty good friend of several of the Democrats from the city of Seattle. We did represent the same community and we spoke the same language.”
That meant lawmakers in both parties often had to strike a more moderate stance, he added, reflecting their mixed constituencies. Today, legislators can adopt a hard-line attitude either way on an issue such as environmental regulatory reform.
While it is challenging to definitively trace the anti-development sentiment to one source, Gorton does see a relationship between the current political divisions and corresponding gridlock. Gorton is a member of the bipartisan Washington State Redistricting Commission, which meets every decade to appoint new members and redraw congressional and legislative districts. The committee is scheduled to meet next in 2021.
He said that more and more people insisting on living only in communities of like-minded people can be one driver of polarization, and that “the criticism of gerrymandering is overstated. The people have gerrymandered themselves.”
The result are lawmakers representing districts whose voters have already decided which side of an issue they are on, he added, whether is it development, social issues, or any other topic. “The problem isn’t that legislators and congressmen don’t represent their constituents well. The problem is they probably represent them too well.”
Because of that, Gorton says a divided legislature that forces both sides to acknowledge the other is the best recipe to get anything done. “For the last several years until this year, you did have a divided legislature, anything that was to be accomplished getting votes for both parties. Until people change their minds and stop sort of segregating themselves by political attitudes, the best guarantee for requiring the two parties to talk to each other is evenly divided legislative bodies. Each party has to give something up.”
It also helps prevent bad decisions, he said.
As perhaps some comfort, he added: “In the last 5-6 years, they haven’t done anything that was disastrous.”