A push in the state Legislature could make ‘net ecological gain’ the new standard for building.
In a move promoted by environmentalists and others as key to staving off the extinction of Puget Sound orcas — but opposed by the building industry —Washington may soon take a ﬁrst, small step toward requiring that development beneﬁt the environment.
The budget proposed by the Washington House calls for planners to begin preparing to replace the state’s requirement that construction cause “no net loss” to habitat with a higher standard backed by environmental advocates — “net ecological gain.” It appears Washington would be the ﬁrst state in the nation to do so. The budget put forward by the Senate has no such provisions, however. Legislators in both chambers are expected to negotiate a ﬁnal budget this next week.
The new standard would be something of a sea change for land use in Washington. Builders doing damage to the environment would be required to create or restore more ecological capacity than their construction destroys. The century-plus-long decline in Washington water quality and salmon abundance might begin to be reversed. “It sets a standard,” said Rep. Debra Lekanoff, D-Bow, the Legislature’s leading advocate for the change, “of leaving [the environment] better than we found it.”
Opponents contend the change amounts to government-sponsored theft, in that today’s builders would be paying for degradation — which occurred with the state’s blessing — from which others proﬁted in the past. Local governments, too, are concerned thata shift in policy could prove expensive if they ultimately have to compensate landowners for the additional work.
Requiring additional environmental work would also slow homebuilding in the state while increasing construction costs, said Jan Himebaugh, government affairs director for the Building Industry Association of Washington. Washington’s housing inventory has not grown as fast as the state’s population, she said, driving housing prices to unaffordable levels in much of the state.
“It will slow that permitting process even more … and those costs that are already out of control will skyrocket,” said Himebaugh, whose organization, better known by its abbreviation BIAW, represents homebuilders in Olympia. “That’s not good for housing, and that’s not good for the people of Washington who need homes.” Continue reading