More GMA fine-tuning needed for rural counties, say lawmakers

More GMA fine-tuning needed for rural counties, say lawmakers
As Washington’s rural counties struggle with economic development, local and state lawmakers are once more looking at possible changes to the state’s Growth Management Act. Although some government officials at a Nov. 15 work session discussed several tools available to those counties, other panel and committee members spoke of difficulty in getting developments underway or the limitations imposed by GMA tools. Photo: The Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation & Culture

As Washington continues to grow, rural counties throughout the state are struggling to attract new businesses and jobs for their residents. Some state and local lawmakers much of the difficulty is due to restrictions and complications caused by Growth Management Act (GMA) policies either artificially reducing available land or prolonging the permit process. It was the central topic of a Nov. 15 joint work session by the Senate Local Government and Agriculture, Water, Trade and Economic Development committees.

Growth Management Services Eastern Regional Manager Dave Andersen told panel members that “rural areas are struggling economically in Washington. Our metro areas are doing very well. The rural areas in Washington are getting spillover from the metro areas but there’s still a big gap.”

Although government officials cite various regulatory tools available for land outside urban growth areas (UGA), critics claim that more options are needed if counties outside of central Puget Sound are to prosper.

“We definitely need new tools in the toolbox,” Stevens County Commissioner Wes McCart told legislators. “Simply to get some development here would be a boon, yet we’re kept out of that. economic development needs to keep up with the time.”

The frustration was shared by many of the panel members, too. Sen. Jan Angel (R-26) told Anderson that “I have lost companies going to other states…when I’ve had places right outside the urban growth area with plenty of services and acreage. But it was the timeframe in getting this done.”

“We’ve got to work to get a system…in place to where you can expedite this somehow and not lose these companies to other states,” she added.

Anderson said that a rural industrial land bank can help speed up the process for major industrial development. The bank consists of two or less “master planned locations for major industrial activity outside urban growth areas.”

However, Angel said many companies want to own their buildings and the property they’re on, which makes this option impossible.

Also, the timeline itself can deter many companies on publicly-owned land, says Sen. Dean Takko (D-19). “You mention all these things that you can have land ready for development, but you know the reality that I’m seeing especially in my district is we’ve got land that is on port property, zoned industrial, has been industrial…we’ve got land that should be ready to go, but the reality of siting one of these things is it still takes year and years and years because of our convoluted system that we have for permitting things.”

“I have trouble telling industries…they want to come up and locate in my district or in the state of Washington. I’m going, “Do you realize what you’re going to go through? Are you ready to spend four, five, six years on permitting, even if you’re’ in a port district that has land zoned industrial?”

Under GMA, most counties are required to set up UGAs that separate rural and urban areas. Additional restrictions are imposed outside the UGA to preserve “the rural character.”

Another option for local planners is known as a limited area of more intense rural development (LAMIRD). They come in a variety of forms, including small scale industrial and commercial activities in existing pockets of development, small-scale tourist uses and small-scale commercial. Another example of a LAMRID is Suncadia Resort near Cle Elum.

These LAMRIDs don’t require additional urban government services to function and complement the local economy, Anderson said.

However, McCart called LAMRIDs in his county “the Truman show,” in reference to a 1996 movie in which the protagonist is unknowingly part of a reality TV show continuously film on a massive set.

“You literally set a community in a little area up with a 1993 circle around it, and you’ve created a little time capsule,” he said. “It’s got to be predominantly built, so you’re allowed a little bit of infill.”

As a result, these LAMRIDs have seen “24 years of no significant growth and no way to ever move that boundary because you’re still bound by the 1993 built environment,” he added.

“LAMRIDs are not a tool for economic development,” he said. “Rural counties with limited GMAs need ability to grow…but LAMRIds are not allowed to grow. If you have a handful of urban growth areas and that’s all you’re allowed to have in our county, you have a hard time providing jobs without a lot of commute.”

McCart was among the testifiers during this year’s session in favor of a bill that would have loosened GMA restrictions on counties suffering from economic stagnation. The bill was passed by both houses and signed into law, albeit with a partial veto by Governor Jay Inslee. Some concerns cited by opponents was fear of “runaway development,” which McCart said at the Nov. 15 meeting is unfounded.

“There are provisions in the law…to prevent that,” he said. “We have moratoriums, we have interim zoning.”

The connection between GMA policy and job loss in rural counties was also emphasized this session when a House bill passed this year would have allowed local governments to site businesses where they can have freight mobility access, but it was veto outright by Inslee. Rep. Liz Pike (R-18) argued that the lack of access cost Clark County 7,500 jobs.

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