Future growth in Washington

Future growth in Washington
A new report by the William D. Ruckelshaus Center recommends a combination of greater local flexibility and certainty regarding growth management policies. Photo: freepik.com

The Growth Management Act (GMA) has guided local and regional planning since the state legislature approved it in 1990. In the nearly three decades since, the state population has grown by 2.7 million – much of it confined to the central Puget Sound region. In recent years policymakers have sought to address frequent criticism raised by local planners, building industry members and other stakeholders of provisions they say make it difficult to properly absorb growth.

Yet, a new report by the William D. Ruckelshaus Center indicates the solutions require a more comprehensive approach involving more than a dozen related state laws, including the Shoreline Management Act and the State Environmental Policy Act. The conclusions presented at a Nov. 21 meeting of the Senate Local Government Committee reflect, in part, stakeholder feedback from 73 workshops held last year throughout the state.

“People said you can’t just focus on the Growth Management Act,” Project Co-Lead Amanda Murphy told the committee. “There are a lot of other laws and institutions and policies that connect the way we do growth planning in our state…you can’t just look at it in isolation, but instead to look at the system.”

GMA’s overall objective is to prevent sprawl through the creation of urban growth boundaries that concentrate density within the urban growth areas (UGAs), while imposing significant development restrictions within rural areas. Cities and counties are required to update the zoning and land-use policies in their comprehensive plans every eight years.

The law has taken flak for a variety of reasons. For local planners, the eight-year updates represent a lengthy process that adds additional cost to budgets. In the first two years GMA was enacted, $16 million in grants were available to cities and counties to pay for the updates. However, in the last biennium only $1 million was available.

“They really have to do it basically out of their own pocket, and that is causing serious issues,” Project Co-Lead Joe Tovar told the committee.

Another common criticism is that the law provides little flexibility for local governments to respond to population or economic changes.

Committee Chair Dean Takko (D-19) observed that: “the general feeling of people (in my district) is not a bottom up – it’s a top-down. What we want to do in a rural area may not necessarily be what we can do.”

Land-use prescriptions can also make it difficult to expand the residential supply.

“There are some common concerns that came across no matter where we were,” Murphy said. “The first: availability and affordability of housing, and that looks different all across the state, but over and over again people talked about this.”

She added that comprehensive plans often don’t align with the market. “Many communities would talk about how they did all of this planning and how…they were beginning to implement it….and then that they felt the marketplace would just come in. For many people…you buy a home and you’re not just buying a home, you’re investing in your community. For many people, they felt that that is changing so rapidly that they don’t recognize their community anymore.”

While much emphasis has been placed on the east-west divide within Washington regarding priorities, Tovar said the situation is far more complex. “There are probably 16-18 distinctly different regions of the state. We heard people saying one size does not fit all – that was a consistent theme virtually everywhere we went. It came up as more sophisticated, more nuanced, than simply ‘we don’t want to be Seattle’. We certainly heard that. But we also heard people say ‘Well, we don’t want to be like that rural county right next door, because we’re not them.’ So identity matters, place matters.”

The report’s recommendations include:

  • Increased funding to local government growth planning;
  • Revise city and county annexation laws;
  • Extend comprehensive plan updates to every 10 years to coincide with the federal census;
  • Create an “adaptive management and regionally-based approach” toward growth management; and
  • Develop a statewide water plan.

Tovar said the key for growth policy is effectively balancing “a compelling state interest and local choice, and where do you slide that bar? It’s going to vary from place to place.”

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