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GMA bill advances, lawmakers take issue with ‘net ecological gain’ provisions

GMA bill advances, lawmakers take issue with ‘net ecological gain’ provisions

The state House earlier this month passed ESSHB 1117, which would add salmon recovery to the goals of the state Growth Management Act despite reservations about perceived ambiguity in the bill language. That legislation has now cleared the Senate Committee on Housing & Local Government after a March 24 vote, though apprehension remains regarding how the bill determines whether the proposed new goal is met – and who makes that decision.

ESSHB 1117 would have cities and counties incorporate salmon habitat recovery strategies into the land-use element of their comprehensive plan updates which are done every eight years. However, the bill states that the strategies must achieve a “net ecological gain,” a term that is defined at length in the legislation. The bill authorizes the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) to adopt criteria for what would constitute that net ecological gain.

For opponents, this provision could be construed to give WDFW significant authority over GMA planning by local governments. Builder industry advocates have also warned that the legislation could stymie housing development, driving prices even higher.

An unsuccessful amendment introduced by Sen. Judy Warnick (R-13) would have explicitly stated that the bill does not apply to instream flows, nor would it authorize the state agency to create additional regulations for surface or groundwater.

Another unsuccessful amendment proposed by Sen. Phil Fortunato (R-31) would have had the costs of the bill’s implementation be borne by the state, rather than private entities.

Chair Patty Kuderer (D-48) described the bill as a “workable solution,” but Fortunato said “my fear is that we’re going to be causing more and more delays. We have this sort of ambiguous term: ‘net ecological gain.’ What does that mean? Who determines that?”

Sen. Shelly Short (R-7) told the committee “I think we are going to see projects not done, really important projects,” due to how the bill treats private projects. Under the bill, development regulations “may not require” them to contribute to net ecological gain, while an unsuccessful amendment proposed by Short would have explicitly exempted them.

This matters, she said, because many private projects are publicly funded and done for public benefit, adding that the bill language as written would have “a chilling effect” on those private projects, regardless of how they’re funded.

ESSHB 1117 has been referred to the Senate Ways and Means 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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