Washington has a growth problem, but the problem differs depending on where you live.
In the Puget Sound region, an exploding population has led to increased traffic congestion, rising real estate prices and new employment centers. That is an experience not shared by most Washington counties, however, many of which are more rural and have the opposite: decreasing population and higher unemployment.
Complicating the landscape are provisions in the state Growth Management Act (GMA) that are applied statewide, with little to no recognition of a region’s unique challenges.
This divide between rural and urban regions was articulated during a January 18 public hearing for SB 6186 in the Senate Local Government Committee. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-1), whose district includes part of Snohomish County, which is currently undergoing tremendous growth in unincorporated urban communities – a trend not accounted for in local government planning documents.
During the hearing, Palumbo said the intent is to ensure infrastructure and transportation projects go where people actually are. “The idea here is that when we do these planning documents under GMA, we say: ‘We’re going to plan for growth in Everett, because …we’re going to get light rail in 2041. The Puget Sound Regional Council takes the federal dollars, it puts it along with that plan. That’s always good to plan for future transit. But in the meantime…the free market is choosing where people want to live,” he said.
If passed, SB 6186 would require counties to complete and review an annual growth monitoring report, currently a voluntary option under GMA. A public hearing would also be required. If by the fourth year the county discovers growth in a subarea is 65 percent or more of its projected growth within the eight-year timeframe, then the county, regional transportation planning authority and any relevant transit authority must revise their planning documents, which among other things ultimately impact where and how federal transportations grants are allocated by the Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC).
However, how the counties do that would be left to the local lawmakers, Palumbo said.
Among other issues, Palumbo said: “One of the problems I see with GMA is there’s no teeth. At no point in time is there any mechanism in GMA that makes, for example, a county or the Puget Sound Regional Council or transit agency look at what’s happening on the ground and say ‘You know what, we didn’t plan for this and there’s no infrastructure there to support this growth. Let’s do something different.”
The proposal drew a neutral stance from Futurewise, a Seattle-based growth management advocacy organization that supports shifting populations into urban areas. Futurewise State Policy Director Bryce Yadon told panel members that “I think one of the concerns is…if there is growth … how do we find them funds to support them in this process?”
Chair Dean Takko (D-19) asked Yadon whether there was a process already for cities, counties and transit agencies dealing with this kind of unanticipated growth.
Yadon said that capital facilities planning from the state traditionally used to support county infrastructure is negligible. “It’s been hard to update and keep many of those capital facility plans because the funding’s not there. We would prefer that growth and infrastructure go in at the same time.”
Notably, Palumbo said: “We’re not going to hope and pray that our planning document from eight years ago matches the free market. That is a choice that they can certainly make, but is not being made.”
Further discussion indicated likely bill revisions, including exemptions for counties that aren’t growing at the same rate. It was a point raised by Laura Berg, policy director for the Association of Washington Counties. She told lawmakers that when GMA was passed, there were expectations for how funding would be provided to the counties. “Originally, there was money to implement and you had counties that opted in. Since then, there has been little to no money for ongoing operations…and there is no…long-term funding.”
“When we don’t get money for updates, we are really stuck,” she said.
Requiring annual updates for Puget Sound-region counties makes sense, but not for others with so few people the local government is lucky to have one planning staffer, she added. “They don’t have that data available to them. It’s not as easily garnered by some of the smaller growing counties.”
“A majority of counties have very small growth,” she added.
Palumbo said that an “easy fix” could have the law only apply to relevant counties.
Not among “relevant counties” would be Grays Harbor in the 19th District, which experienced a 1.6 percent population decrease. The county also has an unemployment rate of 6.9 percent, compared to 3.9 percent in King County and 4.3 percent in Snohomish, respectively.
When that discrepancy was mentioned, Takko replied: “And there’s a reason we have negative growth. We won’t get into that here.”
No further action is scheduled for the bill at this time.