Stakeholders warn against GMA amendments, “tone deaf” reform process

Stakeholders warn against GMA amendments, “tone deaf” reform process

For years, a variety of stakeholders including builders, housing organizations, and local government advocates have emphasized the need for changes to the state Growth Management Act (GMA) that was enacted in the early 1990s with the intent to prevent urban sprawl. Now however, some say that a list of potential GMA amendments unveiled at the House Environment and Energy Committee’s Nov. 30 meeting includes changes that not only lack consensus but also will make Washington’s housing situation even worse.

“Every single element (of GMA) has failed from whatever perspective you take it,” Building Industry Association of Washington Government Affairs Director Jan Himebaugh said, adding that many of the amendments would “do more of the same ands hope for a different outcome. The tone deafness of this continued process…is really frustrating.”

A 2019 Road Map to Washington’s Future study of GMA conducted by the William D. Ruckelshaus Center left many stakeholders unsatisfied with its recommendations. During this year’s legislative session lawmakers included a budget proviso funding a stakeholder work group to develop GMA reforms, but it was vetoed by Governor Jay Inslee. An alternative work group was formed and funded through the University of Washington and given the title “Updating Washington’s Growth Policy Framework.”

The resulting potential amendments included in the report stem from more than a dozen meetings with 70-85 people representing state agencies, tribes, environmentalists, builders, local governments, and farmers.

The problem with this approach is that the number of people participating made it impossible for meaningful discussion to happen, said Association of Washington Cities (AWC) Government Relations Advocate Carl Schroeder, adding that it also made the notion of consensus impossible, particularly on hot-button topics such as climate change.

“It was a bunch of people that can’t agree particularly on anything,” Himebaugh said.

The potential amendments ultimately presented to the Environment and Energy Committee were selected by Project Manager Joseph Tovar, a former city planner. He told the committee that the objective of the work group was to find “broadly-agreed-to changes to the state law to bring to you for 2021. What we’re going for is a sweet spot in the middle – to look for where there might be some agreement on some of these issues. There’s a lot of work still in front of us.”

However, Himebaugh said the amendments in fact do not reflect consensus and that builders objected to many of the amendments that were included, while at the same time the reforms they sought were left out. “We have objected the entire time,” she said. “It has been an eternally frustrating process.”

Among the potential amendments is one that separates counties as either “metropolitan” or “rural,” with 10 of the 39 counties meeting the metropolitan definition. Under GMA, counties are divided into rural or urban growth areas (UGA); all cities are considered UGAs.

Metropolitan counties under the “potential” amendment would be defined as follows:

  • Has a population density of at least 100 people per square mile;
  • A population of at least 200,000; or
  • A population density of at least 75 people per square mile and an annual growth rate of 1.75 percent or more.

The amendments also address the lack of “middle housing” in the market such as duplexes, triplexes, cottages, and townhouses. One amendment would add an “affordable housing gap” for when the median housing prices and rent both rise by a certain percentage annually, while another would require metropolitan counties and their respective cities that have an affordable housing gap to allow middle housing within a quarter mile of transit service.

However, Schroeder said that requiring land-use for middle housing won’t ensure that the housing will actually get built, adding that despite the perception that cities actively try to avoid growth, that’s actually only the case with a few municipalities.

Other potential amendments would add new goals or concepts to GMA, such as “environmental justice,” while eliminating the word “citizen” from provisions concerning public involvement. The definition of environmental justice calls for “using an intersectional lens to address disproportionate environmental and health impacts by prioritizing highly impacted populations, equitably distributing resources and benefits, and eliminating harm.” GMA provisions regarding the siting of capital facilities would have to consider environmental justice in its decisions.

Both Schroeder and Himebaugh said these inclusions will create new opportunities for legal challenges.

“Local jurisdictions have a lot of requirements under GMA that are a pressure,” Himebaugh said. “We have sympathy. But instead of taking pressure off them…they add more pressure, costs, and liabilities to these local jurisdictions. For us downstream, that means more costs and pressure to our individual projects.”

One area building advocates and local government organizations differ on policy pertains to permitting. A potential GMA amendment would create a “safe harbor” provision for local governments that have sought compliance but lack the needed resources.

While builders seek reduced timelines and reduced planning , local governments have argued for new revenue sources to cover the costs for GMA work. Schroeder said that some cities have yet to fully rebuild their planning staff after cuts made during the Great Recession.

However, Himebaugh said that until costs for builders go down, nothing’s going to change. “Until you actually do something about permitting timelines – the real permitting – you’re not going to get to real affordability or stability in the market, ever.”

Other potential amendments would incorporate language into GMA making it a goal to decrease vehicle miles driven and requiring both the land use planning and transportation elements to incorporate it. A similar proposal was made in the Senate during the 2020 legislative session. The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has had a goal since 2008 to reduce vehicle miles driven per capita, though miles as of last year actually increased.

The legislative session begins on January 11.

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