The year of GMA reform?

The year of GMA reform?
Two new Senate proposals seek to improve housing affordability and rural economic development by changing regulations in the state Growth Management Act. Photo: Washington Hospitality Association

A recurring criticism of the state Growth Management Act (GMA) is that its regulations artificially restrict housing supply and stymie rural economic development. Two new Senate proposals via SB 5193 and SB 5194 aim to change that. Sponsored and cosponsored by Sen. Shelly Short (R-7) and Sen. Guy Palumbo (D-1) respectively, the bills received a Jan. 24 public hearing of the Senate Local Government Committee along with two other pieces of GMA-related legislation.

Short told colleagues “the thing we have heard repeatedly throughout Washington state…is the challenges we’re having,” including housing affordability and homelessness. “Those challenge didn’t happen overnight.

“I think what we need to do is understand that jurisdictions all have unique needs,” she added. “The things that are before us, especially land use, have become very rigid in part due to how the interpretation of the Growth Management Act has come over time.”

Passed by the legislature in 1990, GMA was intended to prevent urban sprawl by restricting development outside of designated urban growth areas (UGAs) within counties. Counties also have to adopt comprehensive plans for both the urban and rural areas. The rural plans allow for what are known as “limited areas of more intensive rural development” (LAMIRDs). There are three separate types of LAMRIDs with varying restrictions that local government officials say can make it difficult for them to develop rural areas.

“We have really seen our rural area struggle because some of the crossroads that had developed years ago have actually been reduced in their vitality,” Washington REALTORS Assistant Director of Land Use/Planning Janette McKague said. “Folks have had to move out of the area. A lot of those places had the grocery store, the mechanic, the small sawmill for the forested lands that were nearby that folks relied on. We had canneries and some slaughterhouses that have disappeared out of these areas.”

Jefferson County Planning Manager Austin Watkins painted a similar picture when he told panel members that without changes to GMA regulations, “we will continue to struggle.”

“There needs to be balance between jobs, economic development and housing,” he added.

SB 5193 loosens certain restrictions on LAMIRDs and no longer requires counties to establish logical outer boundaries for them. The proposal is supported by the Association of Washington Business (AWB), which has hosted numerous summits discussing ways to improve the state’s rural economies.

“What we learned (from the summits) is that one size does not fit all,” AWB Director of Government Affairs Mike Ennis told panel members. “I think there are some counties, some rural areas across the state, where it doesn’t make sense to comply with some of the rules that are listed in the GMA.”

Testifying in opposition was Bryce Yadon with Futurewise. He argued that there is insufficient sewer systems and public facilities to support the expanded developments in rural areas. “We understand (there’s) some desire to figure out how we continue to increase economic development in these areas. Hopefully we can find a way forward to that.”

Meanwhile, SB 5914 aims to address housing affordability by requiring counties to expand their UGAs when more than a third of households are spending 30-50 percent of their income to pay for housing. Also, certain counties and cities must also “ensure the UGA contains a balance of housing types, at a variety of price points and densities, and increased economic development.”

Washington State Association of Counties Policy Director Paul Jewell told the committee that they mostly supported the proposal, save for requiring counties to expand their UGAS. “Generally, our members are good with permissive language and not so good with mandatory language.”

No further action is scheduled for either bill at this time.

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