(King County 2016 Comp Plan)

Washington state Republicans have mounted an all-out assault on the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA). More than a half-dozen bills have been proposed seeking to either repeal the GMA or severely hamper its effectiveness at protecting natural and rural lands while focusing healthy urban growth patterns in cities and unincorporated urban areas across the state. This should be concerning to urbanists because the frequency and depth of the proposals are much greater than in previous years.

Since its passage in 1990, the GMA has been a longstanding bedrock for planning in Washington state. Twenty-nine out of Washington’s 39 counties fully plan under the GMA and collectively have more than 6,377,000 residents (approximately 95% of the state population in 2010). The Washington State Legislature, in defining the purpose of the GMA, states that it:

[F]inds that uncoordinated and unplanned growth, together with a lack of common goals expressing the public’s interest in the conservation and the wise use of our lands, pose a threat to the environment, sustainable economic development, and the health, safety, and high quality of life enjoyed by residents of this state. It is in the public interest that citizens, communities, local governments, and the private sector cooperate and coordinate with one another in comprehensive land use planning. Further, the legislature finds that it is in the public interest that economic development programs be shared with communities experiencing insufficient economic growth.

Put another way, the GMA serves to ensure that cities, counties, regions, and the state have a coordinated way to allocate public resources and services, to preserve critical and environmentally important areas, to retain natural and agricultural resources, to realize economic vitality across industry sectors and regions, and to provide people with quality housing options.

So why would we upend the GMA? In the sections below, I’ll highlight seven bills that would do great harm to the state and its residents by encouraging sprawl and by encroaching on wilderness and agricultural lands.

Numbers Wizardry

One proposal disguises itself as merely an exercise in “simplifying the population growth criteria for planning required by the Growth Management Act.” But House Bill 1101 is designed to prohibit any counties that might eventually hit the threshold for required participation in the GMA and eliminate the option of counties to voluntarily plan under it.

Using some numbers wizardry, the proposal would bump up the threshold to counties with a minimum population of 100,000 (up from 50,000) and that have had a growth rate of 20% (up from 17%) over the past 10 years. Such a county would also have to have at least one city with a population of at least 30,000 residents that has seen 20% growth over the past 10 years; that minimum population size for cities would also be a new condition.

This, however, would discourage counties from actually conducting growth management planning by instead sprawling outside of incorporated cities in order to skirt around participation in the GMA. At most, 12 of the state’s 39 counties might be required to participate in the GMA and shutout the rest for the foreseeable future.

“Voluntary” Participation

Another bill would go a step further by relegating the GMA an entirely voluntary approach to planning in counties. House Bill 1350 would strike requirements compelling counties to participate in growth management and actually force those currently operating under the system to positively reauthorize their participation by ordinance no later than December 31st of this year. If a county fails to do so, it would automatically be removed from participation in the GMA. The bill would also dismantle the Growth Management Hearings Board to adjudicate decisions related to compliance by counties and jurisdictions remaining within the GMA regime, and repeal substantial portions of the Act related to procedural and governing frameworks.

Downsize Rural And Agricultural Lands

Using small, sustainable farming as a rallying cry, a House bill would have disastrous impacts to controlling development on lands designated for rural and agricultural use. By inserting two sentences in the definitions section of the GMA, local governments would have no control on minimum lot sizes, the means by which most local governments use to retain rural and agricultural character and activities. With no minimum lot size standard to hang their hat on, it would be difficult for local governments to prohibit subdivision of land for non-agricultural or non-rural use.

Horsetrading Low-Income Housing For Urban Growth Area Expansions

Under a bizarrely written co-sponsored Senate bill by Republicans and Democrats, new urban land capacity analysis requirements would tilt the scales for local governments to pursue urban growth area expansions over urban infill development while also making some measurable gives to local governments to preserve low-income housing and implement homelessness assistance programs. The two-, or three-, or four-topic bill (depends upon how you want to count it) seems like a bait and switch.

The details of the proposed changes are complicated. But in short, the bill would modify how counties conduct urban land capacity analysis reports by requiring them to increase their fudge factors on available land supply for development and redevelopment while making lower assumptions for development on urban infill parcels typically associated with higher density residential and mixed-use. The language also turns the levers in other ways to downplay a preference toward planning for urban infill first before considering expansion of urban growth areas. The effect of the bill would be to force counties to bail on growth management planning and seek consumption of rural lands for new low-density urban residential development.

But the bill doesn’t stop there. It would also insert language specifically for school districts and port districts to subject land capacity analyses to further scrutiny. Those entities have a long history of trying to buy up cheap rural lands and then getting them added to urban growth areas to benefit from urban services. That provision is just another power grab against planned urban growth.

In exchange for these land grabs, the bill is chalked with a low-income housing preservation option and homelessness housing tool. Local governments would be able to establish a tax exemption program to preserved low-income multi-family and single-family units over a fifteen consecutive year period per property. Properties eligible for the program would have to meet certain health, safety, and environmental standards and have units set aside at or below 50% to 60% of the area median income for lower-income households. Additionally, provisions for a state-wide homelessness strategic plan would be significantly overhauled and a surcharge on certain publicly recorded documents could be authorized allowing proceeds to be used toward funding a county homeless housing plan.

All Children Left Behind

Another House bill seeks to make construction of elementary, middle, and high schools much easier in cities and counties planning under the GMA. That by itself seems like a worthy goal. One section would require that such uses generally be treated a permitted use in all zones, but that’s where the rub is.

While there’s nothing in the GMA that expressly prohibits schools in rural areas, siting them outside of urban growth areas is not a simple task. Water, sewer, and other public facilities are often a first step to making them feasible. With hundreds of students and staff on a single site, schools generally can’t rely upon on-site septic systems to manage those needs, which means a sewer connection is almost a must. However, the GMA classifies that type of public facility as an urban service; sewer extensions to uses in rural areas is generally prohibited.

The proposed bill would change that for schools allowing them to have unique access to an urban service outside of urban growth areas. School districts could also request special school siting procedures to amend a county’s comprehensive plan by ordinance at any time (a process limited to no more than once annually) to formally designate the use outside of an urban growth area.

There are a few fundamental problems with this approach to increase the ease of siting schools in rural areas:

  • It allows school districts to put school facilities in places where few people live making it difficult to build a community around a school;
  • It greatly reduces the ability for students to walk and bike to school and increases traffic, which ultimately decreases the safety of students getting to and from school and increases unhealthy habits;
  • It increases the need to bus students to and from school putting additional operating costs on taxpayers; and
  • It invites future urban growth area expansions to follow the development of schools.

The GMA already has tools in place to plan and identify spaces for schools to be located. The Legislature might be better served by focusing efforts in helping schools locate within urban growth areas and encouraging them to create urban-oriented schools instead of sprawling campuses in fields.

Penny Wise, Pound Foolish

In a subtle but significant departure, some legislators are proposing to muck with defining characteristics of “rural development” by remove its distinction from urban growth and adding a qualifier that jobs must be a consideration in developing development regulations for rural areas. That probably sounds harmless. So why does it matter? And who doesn’t want jobs? The crux of the problem is the wholesale policy change in retreating from managing growth.

Counties with less than 100 residents per square mile or smaller than 225 square miles in size one and any cities within them would be allowed to broadly deviate from approved comprehensive plans and substantially loosen development regulations any time they assert that they have experienced “economic deterioration” or “economic stagnation.” They could even approve individual developments in direct conflict with the policies of the GMA if such economic circumstances warranted it. The risk here is that smaller counties could be given a pass on growth management compliance allowing things like oil refineries, large-scale server farms, and big box retailers to be developed in rural areas divorced from urban population centers. Putting some jobs in rural areas and fostering economic development in depressed areas aren’t bad ideas on their own, but skirting around and suspending the GMA is a penny wise, pound foolish way to do that.

Great Repeal Bill

The most extreme attempt to ravage the GMA is a great repeal bill. Under the guise of taxpayer interests, one House bill claims that the GMA “create[s] compliance costs that are a significant burden to taxpayers and inappropriate redirection of limited financial resources away from essential local government functions.” The authors of the bill further assert that “[t]he legislature finds also that the growth management act creates unfunded mandates for counties and cities facing numerous fiscal challenges.” These types of statements are facially false.

The GMA is actually designed to efficiently allocate public resources appropriately across urban and rural areas to reduce the burdens to local government. Planning ahead and in coordination between jurisdictions saves the taxpayer and developers a lot of money in the long-run. It’s also not by accident that counties participating in the GMA actively try to offload exurban and low-density residential land in urban fringe areas to cities. Servicing those types of areas with garbage and recycle, schools, fire and police, water and sewer, and electricity is considerably more costly for local governments than higher density residential, urban commercial and industrial, and mixed-use areas. It’s for this reason that the state has offered tax rebates to cities to annex low-density residential urban unincorporated areas that no one wants to gobble up–it’s simply not cheap to do.

Recognizing the financial strains that new development can place on local governments, the GMA wisely encourages minimum residential densities to make urban development at least partially pan out cost-wise. And while there are undoubtedly administrative challenges to implementing certain aspects of the GMA, the state has traditionally offered technical assistance through partner agencies and grants where there is need.

Don’t Fall For The Con Job

In the brave new world of alternative facts, Republicans think that they can blow smoke in the Legislature to con their way to uncontrolled growth and hamstring local governments. But urbanists should not fall for this type of obfuscation. The GMA, for all its flaws, is a worthy planning project to protect our environment and resource lands while putting urban growth in places that are best suited to handle and benefit from it. There are pragmatic ways to improve the GMA, but none of these bills seek to do that. Tell your legislators to oppose all of them.

Bills to oppose include: HB 1017, HB 1101, HB 1350, HB 1525HB 1609HB 1749, and SB 5254.

The featured image is from Chapter 3 of the King County 2016 Draft Comprehensive Plan.

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.