Fixing The Growth Management Act

Fixing The Growth Management Act
With its historic local shopping district (seen here), plus malls, diverse housing stock and proximity to high-paying jobs, Issaquah exemplifies the upside of clustered suburban growth for those who can afford it. But the costs for shelter and time lost in congested traffic are increasingly steep. Meanwhile, communities farther from Central Puget Sound want more flexibility under state growth laws to attract jobs and housing. Lawmakers will take a fresh look at reforms to the Growth Management Act starting next month. Photo:

As Lens reported last week, lawmakers will begin public work sessions next month to look at how the Growth Management Act (GMA) could be improved 25 years after it took effect. They are looking to possible legislative reforms in 2017. A number of GMA-related concerns have been raised in recent months and years by realtors, academics, elected officials and residents.

Shortcomings under GMA include low-ball population growth projections mandated under the Act; burdensome regulatory oversight affecting some cities trying to accommodate more growth; limits on housing supply and skyrocketing costs; plus barriers for school districts trying to serve growing populations.

GMA Is Ripe For Change

Since our story last week, more legislators and Washington residents are sharing their perspectives with us on where the Act may be ripe for change.

In addition, the Washington Research Council (WRC) recently released a report on possible GMA reforms. The WRC report is titled “The Growth Management Act At 25 Years”.

More Flexibility For Rural Areas, At A Price

The WRC recommendations include:

  • “Allow counties to trade unbuildable acres” in Urban Growth Areas (UGAs) for “truly buildable lands…outside UGAs.”
  • Let cities grow the dimensions of their UGAs if in exchange they finance and develop “high value habitat sites to be enhanced for increased biological productivity.”
  • Permit construction or infrastructure projects outside UGAs “in rural, economically depressed areas where demonstrable gains in affordable housing or job creation can be achieved.”
  • Let new schools be sited outside UGAs if it is too costly to build them inside UGAs, or travel times for students would be too great, or both.
  • “Grant 50-year zoning to developers on certain designated lands close to light rail lines to encourage high-density mixed development, where such a pattern…is not occurring now.”

State Rep. Joan McBride (D-48) serves on the House Local Government Committee, which will run the planned fall work sessions on GMA. She served on the Kirkland City Council for 16 years, including four as Mayor. McBride said GMA has done an excellent job of preventing uncontrolled growth but it is due for a thorough review.

Look Outside ‘Urban Growth Areas,’ Under Certain Conditions

She said the WRC recommendation to consider trading unbuildable acres within a UGA for buildable lands outside a UGA, deserves consideration. “Many slopes are not stable” and there are sometimes wetlands within a UGA, she said.

Additionally, “we need to look outside the UGA” for potential development sites “where there is infrastructure” already in place. When planners draw a circle or a line to demarcate where growth can and can’t occur, “it can become a hammer. What we need is more of an artist’s brush – let’s look at it here, and here, and here,” McBride said.

Rural Economic Development Incentives, I-5 Fast Rail

More tax incentives for rural economic development, and also high-speed trains on major highway corridors could help, McBride said. Central Puget Sound is becoming more like the East Coast, and with the right transit investments the Interstate 5 corridor could speed commuters from places like Centralia or Marysville to regional job centers, she added. This would help mitigate the urban-rural economic divide that is currently brought into sharp relief by the GMA debate, McBride said.

State Rep. Dan Griffey (R-35) also serves on the Local Government Committee. He accented RCW 36.70A.011, the GMA section on rural lands. It states, “rural counties must have flexibility to create opportunities for business development.” The section further details the special balance to be struck between robustly fostering economic growth outside urban areas, and protecting the environment.

Some Rural Economies Still ‘Reeling’

Griffey said districts like his in Mason County “are still reeling” from cutbacks in the timber industry, and despite what state law says, rural counties under GMA are often “risk averse” to changing their Comprehensive Plans to allow for more economic development. Experience has shown they are very likely to be be challenged by environmental groups in administrative and legal venues when they do so, Griffey said.

Griffey added that the state Growth Management Hearings Board needs a more advisory and less central role, as part of GMA reform. He said many challenges to local or county zoning decisions decided by the board are later are overruled in court because the board’s rules of evidence are weak.

Yet, added Griffey, the defendants must pay double for legal representation at the hearings board and in the formal court proceedings which often occur afterward. It makes sense to scale back the role of the state hearings board to a “pre-court” mediation-like focus rather than retaining its quasi-legal function, Griffey said.

Give School Districts More Room To Grow

Both Griffey and McBride expressed support for giving school districts more flexibility under GMA to build new facilities outside UGAs, if conditions warrant. McBride added that such schools and all new suburban schools should be encouraged to reach heights of three or four stories rather than one or two, in order to help make the footprints of their main buildings smaller.

At the Facebook comment string tied to last week’s article, Lens readers also offered some suggestions.

The first House Local Government Committee GMA work session will be September 20, the second October 18, and the third at a date to be determined. The aim is to develop recommendations for lawmakers to act upon in the 2017 session.

To get the GMA work session agendas and the exact meeting times and places, subscribe to the notices of the committee, via the email notifications tool of the legislature.


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