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A Big Punt On Growth Management Reforms – Or A Roadmap To The Future?

A Washington State House panel is now considering proposed reforms to the controversial, 25-year-old Growth Management Act (GMA). It may either be aiming to punt by recommending further study, or could be smartly preparing for meaningful reforms long complicated by entrenched and widely disparate stakeholder views. It all depends who you ask.

The House Local Government Committee has held two GMA-focused work sessions this fall, resulting in hours of detailed testimony, nearly all of it recommending major changes to the law.

At the October 18 hearing of the committee, Chairman Sherry Appleton (D-23) said, “We’ve already involved the Ruckelshaus Center. They are now helping us with a roadmap to the future, and part of GMA. We’ll all be working with them.” The  Ruckelshaus Center at Washington State University works with diverse stakeholders to help resolve tricky public policy disputes. Since last year, the Center has been pitching its services on GMA consensus-building to lawmakers, including at the September 20 GMA work session of the committee.

Deeper Probe Eyed, But Gets Some Static

Appleton later clarified to Lens that any draft legislative proposal on changes to GMA would be made public no sooner than early December. It’s too early to predict what will be in the proposal but it could include a recommendation for the legislature to fund a statewide stakeholder consultation on GMA by the Ruckelshaus Center, plus policy items, Appleton added.

The center’s Associate Director Darren Nichols told Lens that a roadmap prospectus document for GMA conflict resolution has been prepared, and major stakeholder groups on both sides consulted. However, like Appleton, he underscored there is no done deal. He added that a full-blown statewide outreach effort and recommended policy alternatives would require a legislative appropriation of about $500,000.

Rep. Liz Pike (R-18), a member of the committee, is not amenable. She said, “We’ve studied GMA to death, watched the practical use of it for 25 years. I would be opposed to a proposal to postpone much-needed reform.”

Tricky Political Environment May Require Finesse

Nichols defended the need to get proposed GMA solutions right in a tricky political environment. “The issues are hugely complex…This requires getting out, on the ground, and listening to communities across the state,” Nichols said. A “shorthand process” based mainly on hearings in a state capitol or major metro region will not suffice, he added.

Major Changes Already Suggested

A new drumbeat for changes to GMA has been been building since early this year, in the legislature, at housing and construction industry forums, and hearings. Among key concerns have been easing restrictions on land supply to make housing more affordable, developing better and more timely population growth projections, making it easier for school districts to build new facilities, and streamlining the process of challenging city and county comprehensive plans under GMA.

Now, another priority is reversing the effects of a recent Washington State Supreme Court ruling tied to GMA and environmental advocates, which critics – and several county governments – say effectively bars residential development in areas where well water is required.

Opt-Out Provisions Seen As Key

Pike said cities and counties should be allowed to opt out of defending challenges made under GMA to the State Growth Management Hearings Board (GMHB), to their comprehensive plan updates. Considerable legal costs could be roughly halved if the cases went directly to superior court, where they usually end up anyway, often with GMHB determinations being reversed, she said.

Pike also said smaller, more rural counties that originally opted into GMA should now be able to opt out of the framework because the Act doesn’t fit them. She added that planning to ensure development dovetails with needs for infrastructure and quality of life would still be a priority at the local and county levels. Currently under GMA “there’s no consent of the governed,” Pike said.

However, the underlying GMA vision of concentrated urban region growth is something the House majority takes very seriously, said Appleton. “My caucus feels that sprawl is not what we want,” and GMA has helped hold it in check, she added.

State Sen. Pam Roach (R-31) chairs the Senate Government Operations and Security Committee, which has has held its own hearings on GMA. She said when Senate GMA reforms go to the House, they stall because of pressure exerted quietly but powerfully by the environmental group Futurewise.

Roach added, “Now in an election year, the House wants a study. What are you going to do, say ‘No’ to it? If it’s the only game in town, you have to play the game.”

Rep. Mia Gregerson (D-33) Vice Chair of the House Local Government Committee, said, “we don’t want it to be highly political…So many parts of the community need to be heard. We need to strongly consider changes, but make sure it’s equity-based.”

State Sen. Brian Dansel (R-7), a member of the Senate committee, said, “I applaud Rep. Appleton for taking a closer look at GMA. If a study is able to show all the problems that rural Washington is having” around compliance with the Act, then the effort will have been worthwhile.

Dansel added he was not “100 percent sold” on having a probe overseen specifically by the Ruckelshaus Center because a voluntary stewardship program they helped lawmakers develop in 2011 has too often been used as an extra lever for environmental advocates to challenge development on what are deemed “agricultural lands of long term commercial significance.”

Growth Tsunami Raises Stakes

The stakes are considerable, however lawmakers decide to proceed. The Ruckelshaus Center roadmap prospectus notes, the “Office of Financial Management projects that by the year 2040, Washington’s population of 7 million could swell to 10.3 million. The Puget Sound Regional Council projects that half of those…new residents will locate in the 4 counties and 82 cities in the Seattle metropolitan region, together with 1.4 million additional jobs.”

The prospectus states the Ruckleshaus Center inquiry would take two years, including draft and final reports on GMA’s effectiveness plus pinpointing of major issues and policy alternatives. Final details on the scope of work would be set by lawmakers. The study would not preclude identification of near-term GMA reforms, said Nichols.

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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