Growth Act turns 10
July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:41 PM
"It's been ten years since the Washington State Legislature passed a historic, and some say brave, law called the Growth Management Act. The basic premise of the law was, and still is, that population growth is coming to the region so we'd better plan for it. Most everyone agrees that during the past 10 years, the act has stopped some land from being developed, protected some important wildlife habitat, and forced local governments and citizens to truly consider the effects growth has on their communities.But the act has come at a price. Some property owners have seen the development potential of their land, and conceivably its long-term value, drop considerably. Farmers have been pressed by even more regulations on agricultural practices. And county and city governments have racked up huge costs writing, rewriting and legally defending their growth plans.Since 1990 the act has been a bane to some and a savior to others. With it, many say, things are pretty bad. Without it, others counter, it would be much worse.The GMA was a fairly progressive piece of legislation in its day. Not many states had made an attempt to manage growth. Before its passage, land use regulations varied widely from county to county, development was sprawling in all directions and agricultural land and open spaces were quickly being overtaken.At the same time, lawmakers saw needed infrastructure, such as roads, sewers and schools, not keeping up with the growing population. They saw growth overwhelming us, said Congressman Jack Metcalf, R-Langley, who was serving in the state Senate in 1990. We needed to give some power to the counties to slow it down.Metcalf said the joke around Olympia at the time was that the state really needed a big wall built at the Columbia River.Of course you can't do that, he said. Nobody wanted us to be like New York City. But if people want to live here, you can't stop them. It's a real problem.Metcalf had some reservations about the Growth Management Act, particularly because of the complexity of its issues, but said he voted in favor of it because it had a good mix of support from both political parties and the need to take some action was obvious.Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, was in the state House 10 years ago and is considered one of the key writers of the GMA. She agrees that the act had widespread support in the Legislature, which at the time was ruled by a Democratic House and Republican Senate.It was the first time we gave force of law to planning, she said recently. A lot of us really did care about the way the State of Washington looked. It wasn't an anti-growth bill, it was about how to pay for growth.Haugen said one of the best things about the act was that it made cities and counties sit down and work together. She said the act was purposely written with few specifics. Local governments were encouraged to think creatively and design comprehensive growth plans that fit their particular region.In reality, however, the GMA proved to be a lot harder to live up to than most of the lawmakers thought, Haugen said.TROUBLE FROM THE STARTA basic idea of the Growth Management Act was that population growth should be directed to cities where supporting infrastructure was already in place, and that rural, agricultural and forest lands should be protected from sprawling development.That concept worked fairly well for counties in which big cities already existed. But mostly rural counties with small, constrained urban areas and a widely spread population such as Island County found the act difficult to implement.The state gave the 29 fastest-growing of its 39 counties four years to put together comprehensive growth plans that met the requirements of the GMA. Some counties showed a low regard for the state's action. Chelan County in Central Washington, for instance, openly defied the law. It wasn't until the state withheld tax money from the county and two of its commissioners were voted from office that a plan was written. Though few took the strong approach of Chelan County, several counties, including Island, took little action during those first four years. In Island County, some said officials were being cautious, waiting to see if the act would be revised or even thrown out. Others, however, said county leaders were simply stalling, permitting development to continue as usual. By 1994, when a plan was supposed to be ready to go, Island County had only three land-use planners on staff and no one doing long-range planning.In retrospect, said current Island County Commissioner Mike Shelton, quicker action may have saved the county a lot of the problems it's had to face in recent years.Shelton said the county had produced a pioneering and award-winning growth plan in 1984, one that many in local government felt would stand up well to the GMA.They believed there was just a little cleanup to do in our 1984 plan, he said. If that had been done earlier in 1992 or 1993, I don't know what would have happened.Instead, the 1994 deadline came and went and Island County had nothing to show. It would take another four years, lawsuits, threats of economic sanctions by the state and millions of dollars before county officials had a plan they were content with. Even then, the state said it wasn't good enough.IS IT WORKING?Today, Island County is very close to having a completed plan, officials say. In fact, most of the state's counties have come a long way, with only a handful still struggling. But even ten years into the act, not one county has adopted a plan that has had widespread support among the environmental community, developers and property rights advocates.The Growth Management Act has cost many, many commissioners their jobs, said Shelton. He said the state's claim that the act was a way of giving more control to local governments could also be viewed as a way of shifting the responsibility and heat of growth planning off the shoulders of state legislators and onto the local officials. We had to take the tough lumps. I don't think the Legislature has taken the tough votes.Haugen admits that one of the failures of the act is that it requires counties to figure out how to pay for growth while not requiring the same from the state. She said state lawmakers need to address long-range funding of state-run infrastructure such as highways and ferries because many counties, and in particular Island County, rely heavily on such state systems.But Jennifer Lail, Executive Director of the Whidbey Environmental Action Network, said the GMA is a reminder that freeways and ferries aren't the only infrastructure that requires attention.People have no trouble grasping the concept of man-made infrastructure, like roads, sewers, bridges - but we don't as easily grasp ecostructure - the waterways, floodplains, and wetlands that serve just as important a role, said Lail.Tracy Burrows, planning director for the environmental organization 1,000 Friends of Washington, said the growth act has been a mixed bag of success and failure. 1,000 Friends recently published a 10-year review of the Growth Management Act. The report credits the act for beginning to change the pattern of growth in Washington from one of unrestrained urban sprawl to one of defined urban boundaries and basic protection of the land, its wildlife and its resources.We for the first time have protection of agricultural, forest and critical lands, she said. We've accomplished a ton if you compare it to what would have happened without it.The 1,000 Friends report praises counties such as King, Thurston and Jefferson for their pro-active approach to growth planning. Island County does not fare so well with the environmental group. The county is criticized for encouraging unsuitable growth outside of urban areas and for adopting weak environmental protection policies.But Burrows acknowledges that Island County has had to deal with some unique issues, such as its existing shoreline development pattern and its heavy reliance on state transportation systems to get to and from the county.They are very close, said Burrows, But it's been a long, arduous process.The report is also critical of the state for underfunding infrastructure and for continuing to use some of the most lenient vesting laws in the country. Such laws allow development projects and platting to be grandfathered in and exempt from new regulations. The group also recommends that the Growth Management Act establish more standards and limits for counties to use as a guide in planning.On the flip side, however, developers and builders say making the GMA more restrictive is the wrong way to go.It needs to have more flexible criteria, said Wayne Crider, executive officer of Skagit-Island Builders. Local governments need to decide what's best for them.Crider said the GMA has forced counties to do a severe amount of downzoning, thus reducing the development potential of thousands of acres of private property around the state. He added that the act has also made it nearly impossible to build a house anywhere near a wetland because of buffer requirements.Crider also focused on the ever-growing cost of government regulations. High permitting fees and taxes are adding thousands of dollars to building projects, he said. In counties such as Skagit where growth-managing impact fees are charged, Crider estimates that as much as 28 percent of the cost of a house can be directly attributed to government.As far as affordable housing is concerned, you can't do it under GMA, he said.Hugh Fleet, a Marysville Republican who is campaigning for the 10th District state House seat, said the act is doing a poor job of providing protection for the property owner. He questions the science that has led to the listing of salmon on the Endangered Species List and more regulations on property owners along salmon streams.If you ask me, the farmer is the endangered species, he said.Fleet faces fellow Republican Barry Sehlin of Oak Harbor in a September primary for the chance to take on incumbent Democrat Dave Anderson of Clinton in November.WHAT NEXT?It may have been a joke ten years ago to talk about building a wall at the border to keep people out, but people in some areas of the country are starting to take strong action to control growth and protect their quality of life. Earlier this year, two coastal California communities approved growth-limiting ballot measures. In one, a measure to reduce permitted residential growth from 3 percent to 1 percent annually won with 64 percent of the vote.A report published by the Brookings Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy found 240 state and local ballot measures related to conservation, parklands, and smarter growth across the country in 1998. That was 50 percent more than in 1996. Voters approved 72 percent of the measures and $7.5 billion in new state and local conservation spending.These could be signs that public opinion has shifted considerably from the pro-growth visions of the 1960s, '70s and '80s. It may also be that the public sees the same things happening that Washington State legislators saw when they first wrote the Growth Management Act in 1990.The act was and remains a good idea that needs work, said Island County Commissioner Bill Thorn. He said other than a few revisions in 1991 and 1997, the GMA has remained basically unchanged. It hasn't been critically examined and adapted to what we've learned over the past 10 years.Thorn said Island County is plagued today by the poor growth planning practices of the past that allowed the two islands to be platted out and vested for development. If all the land that could already be developed was developed, it would fill the islands with 200,000 more people, he said.Statistics show that nationwide, urban sprawl is consuming 3.2 million acres of land per year. That amounts to 365 acres per hour. It's estimated that the country has already lost 55 percent of its wetlands, 95 percent of its old growth forests and 99 percent of its native prairies.Burrows of 1,000 Friends said the Growth Management Act is just a piece of a much bigger question that still remains unanswered.Should we be encouraging growth? We haven't figured that out yet."