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Finding balance among jobs, housing, environment key to growth planning

The Puget Sound Regional Council (PSRC) is about to undertake an update of Vision 2040, which sets forth a blueprint for growth in King, Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap counties. This effort will result in a new plan, Vision 2050, to help guide our region-wide planning framework. The last version was done in 2008, and with this new update comes an opportunity to re-examine the way in which our region plans for growth.

According to PSRC, by 2050 we can expect 1.8 million more residents and 1.2 million more jobs in our four-county region. Knowing that most of our future population and employment growth is projected to occur in cities and urban areas, it is incumbent upon our state, regional and local leaders to ensure we create the right balance among protecting the environment, meeting our transportation and infrastructure needs and supporting the growing economy and need for housing. While this is no easy task, it is important work that drives the heart of our region’s quality of life.

When it comes to housing, regionally and locally our biggest challenge is ensuring our housing capacity can continue to meet our needs as we grow. In so doing, how can we preserve the ability of working families to live near job centers? And how do we advance the Growth Management Act housing goal, which calls for a diverse supply of housing that is affordable “to all economic segments of the population of this state”?

The updated plan should better reflect where new residents and jobs are locating, so cities can adequately plan for growth. PSRC has a process for allocating growth targets to cities and unincorporated urban growth areas to accommodate the growing population. Unfortunately, these targets do not always accurately reflect actual growth patterns. PSRC should consider revising the growth target setting process to better acknowledge where growth is occurring and make it easier to adjust for changing conditions. This would help cities to successfully plan for vital public facilities like sewer, water, transportation and schools.

Another significant challenge is the disconnect between growth targets set out by PSRC and the willingness of local jurisdictions to accommodate and accept that growth. We observe many jurisdictions pushing back on the rapid growth in the region through building moratoriums, restrictive tree retention regulations, wider buffers, higher impact fees and so on. Historically, many cities have shied away from zoning and regulatory changes that would increase residential density. Citizens want to “retain the character of their town,” which leads to policies that restrict growth. This is contrary to PSRC’s vision that growth be focused in existing cities and towns, near job centers and transit, to lessen impact on the environment from greenhouse gas emissions and sprawl.

The time has come to revise the growth allocation process so that it is more accurate and reflects actual growth patterns. For the past five years our shortage of available housing has been so severe that our market leads the nation in year over year price increases.  This is a situation that is crying out for solutions. Having a clearer picture of where growth is most likely to occur will help our communities better understand and prepare for growth.

Cities need to be accountable for accommodating growth targets. Let’s take this opportunity during the Vision 2050 update process to look at the mismatch between growth targets and local development regulations. Much work is needed to create a regulatory environment that will accommodate the growth demands our region faces. To be successful in creating a better balance between housing and jobs while protecting the environment, we must use our existing land supply efficiently and be mindful of any new regulations that reduce the limited land supply, like overly restrictive height limits and setback rules.

Unless we change a housing supply that is out of balance with demand, we will continue to see escalating home prices and rents, and longer commutes as workers travel farther from jobs to find housing they can afford. These are not the types of outcomes that equip our region for success.

Ultimately, we need to create the right balance among jobs, housing and the environment so our communities can grow gracefully and thrive.

Kat Sims is the executive director of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. Russell Hokanson is chief executive officer of the Seattle King County REALTORS®.

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