It’s time to fix Washington’s Growth Management Act.

by Bill Palmer, President, Kitsap Alliance of Property Owners

Washington State’s experience with the Growth Management Act parallels that of other states with growth management legislation, including California, Oregon and Florida. Probably the number one problem with growth management policies is that they restrict the amount of land that can be devoted to housing. Consequently, land and housing prices increase substantially.

Housing and land, like many other commodities, are subject to the economic law of supply and demand. If supply is limited and demand increases, the price of the commodity increases. That is exactly what has happened in California, Oregon, Florida, cities in the Northeastern United States, plus Phoenix and Las Vegas. Here in the State of Washington this trend is particularly evident in the Central Puget Sound region.

When the housing market drops off, as has been the case within the last several years, there is a corresponding decline in the overall economy of a region and state. The state of Florida, suffering from the effects of a slower economy and high foreclosure rates in its housing market, has recently taken the bold, if not unprecedented step, of repealing its decade’s old growth management legislation.

In a recent article in New Geography, entitled “Florida Repeals Smart Growth Law, Wendell Cox indicates that Florida’s Governor Rick Scott sought the repeal of their Smart Growth Law as part of his commitment to create 700,000 new jobs in Florida over the next seven years.

Washington State’s economy is far from booming and housing prices have escalated substantially in the 2004 – 2007 timeframe. According to Wendell Cox in his article for the National Center for Policy Analysis “The Housing Crash and Smart Growth”, the land cost (reflective of limited supply) and increased regulation adds at least $69,400 dollars to a typical single-family home in the Seattle area. That compares to a figure of $13,200 for the Houston area. Texas does not have Growth Management or Smart Growth requirements. San Diego, which has even more restrictive land use regulations than ours, has a cost overrun figure of $239,100.

Housing price increases are just one of many problems with the restrictive land use policies and regulations associated with Growth Management / Smart Growth regulation. Concentrating people, housing and commercial and industrial development in small urban areas is neither what the people want nor can it be supported by existing infrastructure.

Revamping inadequate water and sewer systems and adding traffic to roads already congested (without building new facilities) and relying on transit that does not connect to places people work or want to go are other issues that are all problems with Washington State’s Growth Management Act.

Suffice to say there is a growing body of research to document the adverse effects of growth control / smart growth policies and regulations. That information can be assembled to further show just how restrictive legislation has caused our housing crisis and the decline in Washington’s State’s economy.

Presuming there is interest in reversing the trend and to promote a housing inventory that people can afford to own, here are some recommendations for what to do with our existing Growth Management Act (GMA).

The best option would be to do what the State of Florida has done and repeal the act (RCW 36.70A). If implemented the state would revert back to the laws in effect prior to 1990. For counties it is RCW 36.70 and for cities it is RCW 36.60. In other words the repeal of GMA still leaves in place comprehensive planning and zoning regulations. Like Florida individual jurisdictions could still implement whatever growth controls their citizens might desire, but other counties and cities would not be so constrained.

Option 2 would not be as drastic and perhaps easier to sell to our legislators. It involves amending the existing act as follows:

Eliminate the Growth Management Hearings Board. The Hearings Board is nothing more than a paper mill that sets policy often not found in GMA and overrides decisions made by elected officials who are accountable to the people they represent. The Hearings Board has no accountability to any electorate. Any appeal of a local decision would be made to Superior Court, which was the way it use to be prior to GMA.

Eliminate Urban Growth Area Boundaries. If counties or cities want to direct growth to urban centers they can do so by offering incentives for people to locate within their boundaries or in immediate proximity to public sewer facilities.

Eliminate the requirement to plan for a certain population target. Cities and Counties can make their own determinations regarding “build out” conditions and what kind of pattern of development would work the best short and long term for their communities. Coupled with the development pattern would be their assessment of what kinds of roads and other infrastructure they will need to implement their plan for the future.

Allow a broader range of land use densities within urban and non urban areas. A county or a city that might wish to have minimum lot sizes in a range between five acres and five dwelling units per acre could do so to best reflect the needs of their communities and prior existing subdivisions.

Allow for new technology sewage treatment alternatives to be employed in areas not readily served by sanitary sewers. This provision would allow prior platted, but undeveloped areas to be utilized more effectively.

Allow for the placement of commercial developments, industrial areas and employment centers in non urban areas as deemed appropriate by a local jurisdiction. This one factor alone would preserve the ability of counties to have a tax base to serve their citizens.

Eliminate impact fees. Counties and cities have the ability to create taxing districts to fund parks and schools. Taxes are a more fair way to distribute the costs. Bonus incentives could be used as an alternative for a developer that provides amenities considered of “community value.”

Allow Critical Area Buffers to be no more than 35 feet in width unless demonstrated by peer reviewed science that a greater buffer width is required to protect the stream or wetland. Most critical areas ordinances are based on theory not actual science. “Best available science” is nothing more than a compendium of studies that may or not have relevance or application to conditions manifest in a particular Washington State jurisdiction. This amendment would cause an implementing jurisdiction to scientifically justify any buffer requirement in excess of 35 feet. If no such data is available, then the minimum buffer requirement is all that could be imposed.

Allow for appeals of comprehensive plans and ordinances by other jurisdictions to Superior Court only if, such jurisdictions participated in the plan or ordinance development process based on an existing or potential threat to that jurisdiction. The intent of this provision would minimize if not eliminate inter jurisdictional disputes where there is no demonstration of a material threat to that jurisdiction.

Allow jurisdictions to “Opt Out” of the requirements of GMA for any reason. Those jurisdictions choosing that option would be still subject to the requirements of either RCW 36.70 or RCW 36.60. This amendment would allow jurisdictions to plan and regulate as is best for their citizens.

Allow jurisdictions to determine what amendments they believe are necessary to keep their plans and ordinances up to date and on what schedule is best for their local conditions. RCWs 36.70 & 36.60 impose requirements for periodic updates which worked well for forty years.

Eliminate required review and/or approvals by State of Washington agencies. Also such review and/or approval requirements imposed by regional planning organization or metropolitan transportation planning organizations on their membership should be eliminated. Neither the State nor regional planning bodies could override locally adopted legislation unless a court of competent jurisdiction upholds an appeal. Said appeal would have to be made in consideration of the provisions of (i) above. Besides the elimination of state or regional agency approvals, this section also must preclude or eliminate required conditions of grant-in-aide funding. In other words adopted plans by a local jurisdiction takes precedence over any state or regional planning agency’s “planning or legislative criteria.”

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2 responses to “It’s time to fix Washington’s Growth Management Act.

  1. You’re right. The proper answer is to repeal GMA.

    Another fallback position would be to define Goal 4 (Affordable Housing) as no more than three times median income in any jurisdiction. That motivates improving business climate (increase median income) or relax land use regulations ( decrease median housing prices).

    Jurisdictions not meeting the housing price to median income ratio wold be non-conformeing and therefore ineligible for grant funding.

    I really favor the basic approach of repealing GMA outright because my second option, above, would be met with all kinds of whining “it’s impossible in my jurisdiction”, etc.

    Just think of all the DCD and GMHB positions we could eliminate and the money the Legislature would save. Counties and cities would save all that litigation cost as well.

    Would you consider forwarding all this to our Legislators?

  2. Your analysis is pretty spot on. As far as I can tell I have not seen any conclusive evidence that the GMA is actually achieving much of anything other than to drive up housing prices and create odd externalities in the real estate market. Of course the GMA hearings board do provide a arena for elitist environmental types such as Futurewise to promote irrational and extremist agendas like trying to halt “sprawl” in Ferry county. I think if Washington were serious about environmental policy and general management it would have to have a more diverse and local driven process than what exists now. For instance in some areas classic “sprawl” might in fact be the most environmental since houses on .5 to 2 acres could have buffer zones around them and would not require sewer service. Also, this would help disperse congestion, create green space and improve the quality of life of the residents. Also, the benefit in terms of housing affordability is obvious. Honestly, I think what defines the GMA is really an elitist mentality rooted in a Victorian era logic that the lower classes should be packed into cities like rats. Needless to say even liberals such as myself think it is time to get rid of such policies.

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