Builders: Land-use policy reform would improve traffic congestion

Seattle has some of the worst traffic congestion in the nation, as well as one of the hottest real estate markets. Local building industry members say that’s no coincidence. Photo: Tony Webster

It’s no secret that Seattle traffic is bad. According to the Kirkland-based INRIX Global Traffic Scorecard, the city ranks 10th nationally and 20th worldwide in terms of congestion. Similar conditions exist for the greater Seattle metro area.

As state legislators and local lawmakers evaluate various transportation solutions to alleviate deteriorating road conditions, building industry leaders are encouraging them to also consider how land-use and zoning policies may be responsible for the scorching-hot real estate market that, combined with a low home inventory, forces many Seattle workers to move south or north and then commute back in on Interstates 5 or 405.

More specifically, building, construction and real estate industry members say the lack of cohesion among Growth Management Act (GMA) requirements, transportation planning and housing development is to blame for the daily gridlock on the region’s interstate highways.

Although there’s no one-solution approach to improve commute times, they argue a combination of GMA and regulatory reform, along with expanded residential zoning and better use of existing land could enable more Seattle metro residents to live closer to where they work, thereby reducing the number of vehicles on the roads during peak hours.

“If you limit supply and you have net demand, the price always goes up,” Windermere Chief Economist Matthew Gardner said. “It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a six pack of beer or a house.”

While the region’s transportation dilemma is due in some part to its limiting topography, current local zoning doesn’t make maximum use of available land either, he added.

“Do we still stand by the fact that 6,500 square foot lots are still appropriate?” he said. “With townhomes, instead of 4 or 6 (units), you get 19 or 24. We need to understand the world is inherently different than what it was 40 years ago.”

It’s a viewpoint shared by MainStreet Property Group LLC CEO Eric Campbell, who says that zoning for apartments and multi-family units fails to account for the natural preference couples have to eventually own a home once they have children.

“What can we do to put more single-family housing specific to Seattle, Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond, even if you had townhomes where they have the traditional ground floor living opportunities?” he said. “There’s just not enough of that zoned, and we’re seeing the pressures on the road as a result.”

He added that in many neighborhoods, such as Kingsgate in the city of Kirkland, older houses are being replaced with larger, more expensive homes. That’s great for the real estate market and neighborhoods who see their home values rise, but bad if you’re trying to meet growing housing demands or provide affordable residences, he said.

“Let’s have 2 to 3 townhomes or small homes on those large lots,” he said. “We really have a decision to make: do we really care about providing housing close-in (to job centers), or will we allow this slow process to continue to evolve of older homes being torn down for bigger, newer homes?”

Also at issue are the variety of land-use restrictions created by an outdated GMA. That’s according to Kurt Wilson, the chief operating officer at Puyallup-based SoundBuilt Homes. He told Lens the state law passed in 1990 is a “huge problem today because it doesn’t take into account reality. When the Growth Management Act came into play, it was a good tool, but things have changed drastically. All this stuff that we have to deal with affects the developable land within the urban growth boundary.”

“Land supply is tight,” he added. “People are now driving for affordability. That is causing traffic. We’re stuck with what we’re stuck with and we can’t afford to do what’s necessary and we don’t have the lanes to add the traffic. It seems like we’re constantly putting band-aids on traffic improvements and mandates here and there.”

One way to increase the supply of available land for more homes is “by adjusting responsibly the urban growth boundary where it makes sense,” he said.  “There’s lots of housing options available if the planning tools are there.”

At the same time, city councils might also want to reexamine how local permits can either add to construction costs or discourage housing development entirely. In the city of Bonney Lake, for example, permits for a 2,500 square-foot-home can add up to nearly $40,000, Wilson said. Additionally, builders are required to install fire sprinklers, which can add up to $7,000 to the house’s total construction costs.

In nearby areas “the permitting fee cost is a third and you have no fire sprinklers (required),” he added. “Bonney Lake has very little new growth going on as it relates to residential development, because they have constrained land, and the land available is too expensive.”

And detrimental effects of the permitting process are not restricted merely to cost, says former Master Builders Association president and Runstad Center Advisory Board Chair Peter Orser. Insufficient city staff can also cause delays, which can create numerous other consequences, he argues.

“Regulation contributes to supply, because it’s a process we’re required to go through to get an approval,” he said. “I’m not suggesting that we should just stop regulating. There are fundamental rules of engagement that you need to go through. But I don’t think cities are funding the staff necessary to process permits.”

He added: “We’ve made the process extremely complicated to say the least. It just restricts supply from a regulatory perspective.”

Wilson says that one regulation for residential housing developments that could be eliminated is the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), a process by which the state determines the environmental impacts of a project. It’s an unnecessary redundancy that “allows for another bite at the apple for an appeal,” he said.

“That was put in place in a point and time where local regulations didn’t exist. Now, all local governments have these types of regulations,” he said.

State lawmakers on both sides seem to be considering the concerns of building industry members. During the legislative session earlier this year, the legislature passed the bipartisan SB 5254, sponsored by Sen. Joe Fain (R-47) and cosponsored by two Republicans and three Democrats. Among other things, the bill reforms how cities and counties participate in the state’s buildable lands program, which determines what land is suited for development – including adequate market supply.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” Wilson said. “It’s so obvious and everybody’s talking about it, but we should have been talking about this in 2008.”



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