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Sue Lani Madsen: In the gritty details of growth management, local values are a goal, not a glitch

Sue Lani Madsen,columnist

The Growth Management Act was passed in 1990 to address development pressures on farmland, the challenge of building schools to match development, and growing traffic congestion. It hasn’t delivered, according to many of those testifying at a House Local Government Committee work session in Olympia on September 20th.

The original 13 goals of the GMA were crafted to build bipartisan support in a process led by then state Representative (now U.S. Senator) Maria Cantwell. It promised to:

1. Encourage concentrated urban growth.

2. Reduce sprawl and inappropriate conversion of farm land.

3. Develop efficient, multimodal regional transportation.

4. Encourage affordable housing and preserve existing housing.

5. Promote economic development throughout the state and respect regional differences.

6. Respect property rights and protect property owners from arbitrary actions.

7. Provide for a predictable, fair and timely permitting process.

8. Maintain and enhance natural-resource-based industries.

9. Retain open space and enhance recreational opportunities.

10. Protect the environment, including the availability of water.

11. Encourage citizen participation and coordination between state agencies and local jurisdictions.

12. Ensure public facilities are in place before development.

13. Preserve historic lands, sites and structures.

Mason County Commissioner Randy Neatherlin testified to problems caused by mandated minimum rural parcel sizes. Where local county plans used to approve clusters of houses, leaving larger swaths of open space, GMA has forced his county to approve 5- to 10-acre parcels. GMA has created the sprawl it was intended to avoid.

School districts were well represented at the hearing. Ironically, they are not included in the GMA planning process in spite of district boundaries that often cross multiple jurisdictions. Districts all over the state face barriers to siting and expanding schools to deliver on legislative mandates for all-day kindergarten and smaller class sizes. One school administrator testified school boards are often blocked by Hearings Board interpretations for fear of being sued.

The Hearings Board administrative process was created as an alternative to litigation for citizens. They have been used as the enforcement mechanism. Instead of deferring to local interests as discerned by elected county commissioners or city councils, the appointed Hearings Board decisions tend to defer to state agencies and self-appointed experts.

Several who testified called out Futurewise by name as the group most responsible for co-opting the Hearings Board process. According to Glen Morgan of the Citizens Alliance for Property Rights, fear of litigation by Futurewise or its collaborators is the most often cited driver of locally unpopular planning decisions.

Although all goals are supposed to be equal, “If the thirteen goals are a suit of cards, the environment is the ace and property rights are the two,” said Morgan.

Bryce Yadon of Futurewise pointed out there is no mechanism for review except a lawsuit. But in the last few years they have realized most jurisdictions really do want to plan right.

Futurewise has been trying to work collaboratively with local jurisdictions during planning to avoid lawsuits. Then Yadon lamented that local people sometimes have a different view of what’s appropriate or a different value system.

Wouldn’t that be why there’s supposed to be local control?

Reflecting local values is a goal, not a glitch.

There were a few at the hearing representing cities along the Interstate 5 corridor who testified that growth management was working for them. But even fans had criticisms.

Traffic congestion remains a problem and housing prices have hit unaffordable highs all along the west side as artificial scarcity has driven people to literally drive farther to find affordable housing.

Only one member of the Local Government Committee is from the east side of the mountains, Rep. David Taylor (R-Moxee). A follow-up work session is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 18 in Olympia to listen to proposed solutions to the problems raised at the September hearing.

Washington’s 1990 law was patterned directly after Florida’s “Smart Growth” legislation that had been in place for 10 years. Florida repealed its growth management law in 2011 after a 30-year run. Local jurisdictions in Florida continue to develop local community plans but without state mandates or oversight.

Maybe we could pattern ourselves after Florida again. What’s your solution?

Columnist Sue Lani Madsen can be reached at or on Twitter @SueLaniMadsen.

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