Thurston County A Growth Act Guinea Pig Already Living Under The State Law, County So Far Finds It A Workable Compromise
The faded red pickup rumbling down Interstate 5 bears bumper stickers that mark its owner as an out-of-towner.
“Ellensburg Rodeo” reads one that is tattered around the edges. The other, fresh and still clean, has just three letters: “GMA” with a slash through them.
The second sticker is as foreign as the first in this land of commuters, oyster farmers and the state capitol.
While most Washington counties struggle to draw urban growth boundaries and protect rural areas, Thurston County’s residents are already living under the state Growth Management Act.
What sets the county apart is that no one appealed its land-use regulations to the regional hearings board established to settle disputes that are considered inevitable under GMA.
No environmentalists fought for more protection of wild areas.
No developers battled for larger areas in which to build houses and convenience stores.
No dairy farmers fought rules that prevent them from subdividing their land into small lots.
“No one is completely happy, but they recognize that (the regulations are) a good compromise,” said Dennis Matson, executive director of the county’s Economic Development Council.
Spokane County should be so lucky. As county commissioners prepare to decide Dec. 27 where to draw the line between rural and urban areas, all sides are threatening appeals.
Many developers and large landowners oppose the tight boundaries recommended by a local panel of elected officials. Many areas where several houses now can be built on each acre would be limited to 10-acre lots.
Conservationists and some neighborhood groups will be angry if commissioners deviate much from the recommendations.
Farmers on Peone Prairie in the foothills of Mount Spokane are fighting to retain the right to create small lots. Forty-acre parcels may become the minimum there.
Thurston County didn’t avoid such battles altogether. But it kept them all in the family by completing the most contentious part of the act long before it was mandated by the Legislature.
By 1983, there were growth boundaries around Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater, the county’s three biggest cities. Those boundaries changed little when GMA was implemented nearly a decade later.
Thurston County enforces the cities’ building regulations inside the growth areas and agrees not to put up a fight when cities want to expand into those areas.
In the past, the county had its own set of regulations for all unincorporated areas, and it often was vastly different than those used in the cities.
“Basically, the county is saying that urban areas should be cities,” said Harold Robertson, executive director of the Thurston Regional Planning Council. “And for the most part, that’s what the Growth Management Act says.”
In Spokane, officials will have to hash out similar agreements for the future of urban growth areas. That could prove difficult, since county commissioners are reluctant to give up urban and industrial areas that provide much of the money for county government.
In Thurston County’s rural areas, new lots can be no smaller than five acres and land deemed critical for farming can be subdivided into lots no smaller than 20 acres.
Talk of similar regulations in Spokane County angers people who consider their land an investment.
There were protests in Thurston County, too, said Robertson. He thinks two provisions saved the regulations from appeal.
The first is meant to encourage “clustering” houses in rural areas.
For instance, a developer with 100 acres can develop it into 20 five-acre lots. Or, he can cluster 32 lots on just 10 acres, leaving 90 acres undeveloped.
It’s a good compromise for people who want to live in the country but can’t afford - or don’t want - five acres, said Robertson.
The second provision gives farmers a chance to profit from their land without developing it.
Each farmer is given one “development credit” for every five acres of land, even though the minimum lot size is 20 acres in agricultural areas.
A developer who wants to put the most houses allowed by law on land in a city must buy a credit from a farmer for a price the two of them negotiate.
The program, which hasn’t yet been used, killed a proposed housing project in Tumwater. The developer couldn’t afford to buy credits and couldn’t make money without building as many houses as possible.
That caused some Tumwater officials to wonder why they agreed to the program, said Planning Director Michael Matlock.
“We said, ‘You really have to think of the greater good,”’ said Matlock, who believes the credit program will become popular as land prices climb.
Soaring housing prices are the main complaint of growth management critics. The average cost of a Thurston County home rose from $93,000 in 1990 to $137,000 in 1995. The increase was even more dramatic in Olympia, where the average home buyer spent about $176,000 last year compared to $95,000 at the start of the decade.
Land prices have increased in the rural areas, as well, as small lots platted before the new regulations are snatched up.
“We’re setting it up so people … can’t afford to live here,” said Thurston County Commissioner Judy Wilson, a former Realtor.
Doug DeForest, executive director of Olympia Master Builders, blames Olympia’s “impact fees” for part of the increase. Such fees, which are used to help pay for new schools, parks, roads and fire stations, are encouraged under GMA.
Olympia’s impact fees are $4,600 for a typical house, according to the Regional Planning Council. Tumwater would charge just $1,547 for the same house, while Lacey charges nothing.
Planners acknowledge that impact fees and regulations caused a jump in housing prices, but say the county’s population boom and greater demand has affected prices more.
Thurston County population grew an average of 3.1 percent a year each of the last six years. It’s expected to grow 66 percent in the next 20 years.
Higher prices in Olympia mean more people are moving to outlying areas and commuting to Olympia for work, either on crowded I-5 or on two-lane country roads never intended to serve as highways.
“There are three big housing projects planned for little old Tenino,” a town of about 1,500 people 12 miles south of Olympia, said DeForest, noting that GMA is supposed to discourage sprawl.
Tie-ups are so bad at the I-5 interchange that serves unincorporated Hawks Prairie that state regulators slapped a moratorium on new growth there. It will be lifted when Lacey, which hopes to annex Hawks Prairie, writes a plan to fix the problem.
Since the state and Congress provide little money for interchange improvements, Lacey will have to turn to local taxpayers for at least $20 million.
There are parallels in Spokane to Thurston County’s freeway interchange and Tenino housing projects.
Opponents of the act say strict regulations will drive more people to Kootenai County, Idaho, or to small towns in outlying areas of Spokane County.
County Commissioner Steve Hasson warns that the state could halt growth in the Spokane Valley once the regional sewage treatment plant reaches capacity, sometime in the next decade. The state and federal governments will provide little money for a fix.
Commissioner Phil Harris complains that state-imposed deadlines are forcing Spokane County to act hastily. The county already has missed deadlines, as has nearly every other county planning under GMA.
Wilson, the Thurston County commissioner, said the tight time line is the biggest flaw in the act.
“We didn’t get done on time and we were 10 years ahead of the game,” she said. “The law is simply unrealistic.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Managing growth