A shot across the bow was fired last week last week as two regional growth planning bodies met in Seattle. They were trying to tamp down growing unrest among some suburban King County cities because their population growth targets have morphed from minimums or “floors,” to strict “ceilings,” or caps. It didn’t work.
The debate included central planners who oppose what they term “sprawl” or continued growth outside the region’s increasingly unaffordable urban centers such as Seattle and Bellevue. Bringing a different perspective to the conversation are representatives of some King County communities. Foremost are Covington, Snoqualmie, North Bend and Carnation.
Market Demand For Affordable Development
They want freedom to respond to market-driven demand for local land from prospective developers of single-family and multi-family homes, offices and light industrial sites, medical centers, and retail clusters.
No public testimony was allowed at the workshop September 28 held in Seattle by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) Growth Management Policy Board and King County’s Growth Management Planning Council.
Snoqualmie Mayor Takes Aim
However, Matthew R. Larson, Mayor of Snoqualmie, one of six King and Pierce county cities given only “conditional certification” of their comprehensive plan updates by the PSRC because of the agency’s growth pace concerns, delivered a letter protesting ”PSRC’s misuse” of growth targets to threaten withholding of pass-through federal transportation grants to those towns.
In the letter to King County Executive and PSRC growth board chairman Dow Constantine, Larson also wrote, “growth targets have always been – and remain now – a minimum amount of jobs and housing that cities must plan to accomodate. They are a “floor” and not a “ceiling,” and this has not changed…”
State-Driven Targets A “Floor”
At the workshop, under questioning from some local and county elected officials on the planning bodies, PSRC planner Michael Hubner conceded the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA) conceives of city growth targets as a “floor.”
However, Hubner added that the PSRC growth board decided it wanted leeway to further control growth where it is anticipated to significantly exceed the minimums. He explained the shift from floors to ceilings began after PSRC in 2008 adopted its “Vision 2040” framework for regional planning.
Larson in his letter to Constantine states, “nothing in Vision 2040 indicates that growth targets set through the countywide process constitute a cap or maximum amount that a city may plan to grow.” Larson attaches a September 20 county committee meeting transcript showing county policies changed “under guidance provided by PSRC.”
Relief Wanted From ‘Skyrocketing Home Prices’
Officials from fast-growing quarters of the county earlier this year sought leeway for full achievement of current growth targets. Ten cities including Snoqualmie, and King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert, argued in an April 26 letter to the PSRC that clamping down on market-driven growth “will only result in increased pressures on the rural areas…(and)…skyrocketing home prices, virtually eliminating any affordable housing options within small cities.”
In an interview with Lens, Larson said concerns about lack of affordable housing have grown in the farther reaches of suburban King County, including the Snoqualmie Valley. “Businesses are losing good employees, who can’t find good housing,” or the resulting trade-off often involves long commutes that worsen highway congestion, he added.
At some added risk in Snoqualmie due to uncertainty about growth floors that may now be ceilings, are projects in the pipeline that would grow the hospitality, light industrial and single family housing sectors, and which could even boost more-affordable mixed use housing, Larson said. “Just the nature of this conversation could throw cold water” on some such plans, he added.
At the September 28 workshop, Constantine said the debate about whether growth targets are minimums or maximums “misses some subtleties.” It is more about the relative scale of the difference between targets and local growth that’s occurring, rather than how the adopted targets are defined, and stakeholders “need to march through” a reconciliation process “in an orderly way,” he added.
Larson said the approach that makes the most sense is for the county’s growth planning board to take “a discerning and surgical look” at each of the smaller cities with growth expected to exceed their minimums, and see if in fact, that might not actually serve the greater good.
Value To Growth That Shifts Traffic Patterns
For instance, Larson said, if the right political signals are sent on in-county growth allotments for smaller cities, and an envisioned light industrial development is built in Snoqualmie, the jobs could draw “reverse” work commuters from closer-in suburbs. That would mitigate against traffic congestion, and utilize the existing infrastructure of I-90, said Larson.
For Covington, there is another way to work around the problem of growth goalposts being moved in the middle of the game: PSRC could reclassify it from a “small city” to a “larger city.” It has already exceeded the population threshold of 22,500.
Covington requested the change in a March 25 letter to PSRC (p. 3) and again in a September 9 letter. The agency essentially stiff-armed the city in an April 14 reply which said to expect a delay of two to four years in consideration of the request.
However, PSRC President John Marchione, Mayor of Redmond, stated in a September 20 reply to Covington that the “larger city” status to permit more growth in the municipality could be considered by the PSRC growth policy board “for a potential recommendation” to the PSRC Executive Board “by the end of the year.”
Growth Target Math Questioned, Too
Lurking behind the current discussion of growth targets are substantive critiques of how they are developed under the guidance in the GMA, by the state Office of Financial Management. A major concern, according to a June housing forum presentation by Sam Pace, is the targets are based on low-ball estimates of actual population growth coming to the state, especially Central Puget Sound. Pace is a housing specialist for Seattle-King County Realtors, and former president of Washington Realtors.
The menu of suggested GMA reforms grew last month when city, county and school district officials told lawmakers that 25 years under the Act show the need for more state investment in transportation infrastructure to handle growth; more outward expansion of Urban Growth Areas (UGAs) to increase availability of truly buildable lands; easier access to water rights; and more flexibility on siting of new schools.