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House passes GMA reform bill despite legal worries

House passes GMA reform bill despite legal worries

An ongoing public policy issue for local and state officials in Washington is the recovery of various endangered salmon species. All salmon are protected by treaty with various federally-recognized tribes, and the state is under a U.S. court injunction to remove road culverts impeding salmon passage to habitat by 2030. Now, a proposal sponsored by Rep. Debra Lekanoff (D-40) would add salmon recovery to the goals of the state Growth Management Act (GMA).

The bill, 2SBH 1117, cleared the House on March 2 by a 58-38 vote, though opponents warned of the legal implications both for state and local governments that must account for the bill’s provisions during comprehensive planning.

Complicating the restoration of salmon habitat in Washington is the fact that the court injunction only applies to culverts on state land managed by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT). However, those culverts may not necessarily open as much fish habitat as culverts found on local and county lands. The cost of repairing only the culverts subject to the court order is estimated to be around $3 billion.

“Habitat loss is the thing that is keeping our salmon populations from recovering in a more consistent way,” Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-34) said on the House floor.

HB 1117 directs cities and counties to include salmon habitat recovery strategies as part of the land-use element of their comprehensive plan updates, which are conducted every eight years.

Lekanoff said “we should all be excited. We want to be able to know that if we’re going to put culverts downriver in a city and county, that their comprehensive plan will look down to that salmon recovery and say ‘upriver, we’re going to continue to invest in habitat.’”

However, the bill also states that these strategies must achieve a “net ecological gain,” a phrase that is defined in the bill, while the Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is directed to adopt rules establishing the criteria for it. However, some critics say is unclear.

Rep. Peter Abbarno (R-20) is a member of the House Environment & Energy Committee, where the bill advanced on Feb. 4. He told colleagues prior to the March 2 vote that the term “net ecological is really a very subjective term with arbitrary standards. Even in committee, no one could really pinpoint what that was.”

He added that the fiscal note accounts for potential lawsuits. “There’s going to be litigation on this issue because the language on that bill is very subjective.”

Rep. Mary Dye (R-9) made similar remarks, saying that the new planning under the bill would be a “terrifying activity for a lot of people who do comprehensive planning. We know that the devil is in the details and that words really matter.”

One issue addressed in the bill is that of unfunded mandates, something raised by local government advocates with other GMA-related bills. An amendment sponsored by Lekanoff provides that local governments aren’t obligated to comply with the bill’s new planning unless the state provides specific funding for that purpose.

Yet, critics like Rep. Jim Walsh R-19) still insisted the bill “doesn’t enrich salmon. It enriches lawyers.”

2SHB 1117 has not yet been referred to a Senate committee.

TJ Martinell is a native Washingtonian and award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Bellevue, he’s been involved in the news industry since working at his high school newspaper.

His investigative reporting for various community newspapers in the Puget Sound region has been recognized by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society for Professional Journalists.

A graduate of Eastern Washington University, he has a B.A. in journalism and was the news editor of EWU’s student university newspaper.

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