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Growth Management Act May Get A Refresh

Growth Management Act May Get A Refresh

Washington state legislators on the House Local Government Committee next month will begin a series of public work sessions to look at how to reform the Growth Management Act (GMA) in the 2017 legislative session.

The Act has come under increasing scrutiny in the last year. According to critics in government, the private sector and academia, the GMA:

In its 2016 Interim Plans, the House Office of Program Research states (pp. 67-68), “An objective review of the GMA will be conducted” to see where and how GMA is “not functioning well after 25 years and significant population growth.” The probe will include “a review of school siting issues and other local land use issues.”

Work sessions will be held in Olympia on September 20, October 18 and another date to be determined. The ultimate aim is to develop “draft legislative proposals for the 2017 session” and consider feedback.

State Sen. Dean Takko (D-19) is on the Senate Government Operations and Security Committee, the first stop for GMA-related legislation in that chamber. For six years, as a State Representative, he chaired the House Local Government Committee. That is the focal point for GMA legislation in the House.

Odds May Be Best For School Siting Reforms

Takko told Lens the GMA reform most likely to pass in the 2017 session would allow school districts leeway to build needed schools in so-called “rural” areas to serve all adjacent students, on both the rural and urban sides of the Urban Growth Area (UGA) line. This would be permitted, he said, when no suitable land is available on the urban side.

In the 2016 session, school superintendents testified they urgently need that flexibility. A related school siting bill cleared the Senate, but languished in the House.

Sen. Takko: Broader GMA Changes May Require Outside Mediator

As for other improvements to GMA, Takko said they are more of a longshot, because “we hear the same arguments from the same people and nothing ever changes. We need to really get an entity like the Ruckleshaus Center to step back and take a non-partisan approach” on how to more fully improve the Act, Takko said.

The center is a project of Washington State University and The University of Washington. It harnesses expert panels to help stakeholders develop solutions to thorny problems in seven policy areas, including land use.

Takko said several changes are needed in regional and local land use policies which operate in the shadow of GMA. According to Takko, GMA opt-out pathways for rural counties should be strengthened; land-use permit approval timelines reduced; and challenges to land-use permits prevented after they are issued.

Rep. Taylor: GMA Constrains Economic Growth

State Rep. David Taylor (R-15), sits on the House Local Government Committee. He told Lens, “Areas in Yakima County are prime for economic development, but commercial and industrial growth gets funneled into UGAs (Urban Growth Areas)” under GMA. When cities try to expand UGAs, environmental groups often challenge the decisions through the state Growth Management Hearings Board, and cities typically lose, Taylor said.

“It is the exact same issue as for schools” seeking to build outside UGAs because that is where the most suitable and affordable land is often located, Taylor said.

A much needed change would be to reduce the role of the appointed and “political” state hearings board from that of judge and jury on land use appeals under GMA, to being more solely a mediator, Taylor said.

He added if mediation led by the board fails, then any development dispute under GMA should head straight to Superior Court, “where it really belongs.”

Rep. Fitzgibbon: More Urban Growth Needed

State Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34) is also a member of the House Local Government Committee. Fitzgibbon told Lens his view on state growth hearings board decisions is that they are sometimes ignored by local or regional governments, and that practice should end.

He added that if GMA is revised to ease the siting of new schools in rural areas to serve urban residents, counties must not allow expansion of their UGAs or the problem will repeat itself in the future.

Fitzgibbon said his biggest concern about GMA is that it has been “better at stopping growth in rural areas than making sure it occurs in urban centers” and next-tier cities. Any changes should seek to boost housing supply and “accountability for cities to accept more growth.”

In Central Puget Sound, Fitzgibbon said housing supply needs to be expanded particularly in more affordable cities such as Burien, Des Moines, SeaTac, and Kent. Cities leery of growth like Mercer Island, Normandy Park, Woodinville and Black Diamond also need to step up, he added.

Housing Supply Still Tight, Median Prices High

A recent report from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service (MLS) shows that in July, King County had 1.18 months of supply, far less than three to five months considered a healthy benchmark nationally.

The July median sales price for single-family homes and condos in King County was $505,000. Snohomish County in July had 1.3 months of supply and a median price of $385,000; Pierce County 1.88 months and $280,000. Supply in King County was the same as a year ago. In Snohomish and Pierce Counties the supply is lower now than last July.

“Buyers are feeling the squeeze every day, and now, outlying areas are seeing multiple offers like the major cities have been experiencing the last two years,” said Northwest MLS Director George Moorhead, in a statement.

To receive agendas and access to document links for the autumn 2016 GMA work sessions of the House Local Government Committee, use the legislature’s committee email notifications tool.

If public testimony is allowed in the work sessions, that will be noted in the agendas. Another possibility is that only specific stakeholders will be summoned to testify. If and when GMA legislation is actually introduced in 2017, committee hearings will include public testimony.


Matt Rosenberg formerly served as Editor-in-Chief of Lens. He has more than 30 years experience in journalism, public policy, and strategic communications.

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