Is GMA really managing growth?
By TRACY BURROWS
Over a million new residents will move to Washington in the next 10 years -- a tremendous challenge for a state already struggling with the impacts of unprecedented growth in the 1990s. This year marks the 10th anniversary of Washington State’s Growth Management Act (GMA) and the need to take growth management efforts to a higher level is painfully clear.
The Central Puget Sound region adds 230 jobs and 133 people every day. Much of this growth is sprawling into formerly rural areas. In fact, 38 percent of the new development permits in Pierce County are outside the Urban Growth Area, despite a generous Urban Growth Boundary that reaches deep into the countryside. The situation is even worse in Kitsap County, where 58 percent of new development permits are issued outside its Urban Growth Boundary.
These numbers threaten to overwhelm many of our communities and rural areas with generic strip malls, giant parking lots, and cookie cutter housing developments. The costs include endangered salmon, under-funded schools, disappearing farm and forest lands, overflowing sewers, spiraling housing prices, and some of the worst traffic congestion in the country.
Seeking to avoid such consequences, the state Legislature passed the Growth Management Act in 1990. The law establishes 13 ambitious goals, ranging from discouraging rural sprawl to protecting private property rights, and requires growing communities to develop and implement plans for managing their growth. Its purpose remains to reduce the destructive impacts of unplanned growth and protect Washington’s quality of life.
Over the last 10 years, local governments and citizen leaders have been working together throughout the state to develop plans that establish the framework for Washington’s future. While their efforts have made a real difference in many communities, the experience also clearly indicates that we must strengthen growth management to protect quality of life in the state. The current set of "tools and rules" has provided a good start, but is not adequate for the job.
How successful has our state been at stopping sprawl? There is no doubt that we have made progress over the last 10 years. During the 1970s and 80s, Washington’s urban areas sprawled outward largely unimpeded by any notion that an outer boundary to urban development was necessary. Our land was converted to urban uses at an alarming rate -- developed land in the Central Puget Sound Area grew by 87 percent between 1970 and 1989, while population grew by about 36 percent.
We have made some progress in the 1990s. The Act has given local governments effective tools to reduce sprawl and create livable communities. The Urban Growth Area (UGA) has been the most important tool to contain sprawl. In addition, many local governments have established basic protections for critical areas -- such as wetlands and wildlife habitat -- and for conservation of forest and farmlands.
However, the application of these tools from county to county has been mixed. Lacking performance standards to hold local governments accountable, the GMA has not been consistently applied. The state does not certify whether a plan or regulation complies with the law. As a result, citizens are largely responsible for enforcement. This has led to an uneven application of the law depending on the concern and ability of interested parties to appeal a plan or regulation to the Growth Management Hearings Boards.
Within the next three years, many local governments will be preparing a major review and update of their comprehensive plans. This review period is an important opportunity to improve the way we manage growth in Washington. Some ideas for reform are included below :
Smart growth policies encourage development within urban growth areas and discourage rural sprawl. Within urban areas, local governments often do not have adequate incentives to attract downtown development. In some cases, the land ownership patterns in the downtown are fragmented and it is difficult for private developers to assemble enough land to undertake a successful project. In other cases, the problem is a lack of investment in infrastructure and urban amenities to attract new development.
To promote smart growth, the state should provide greater incentives for infill development that supports growth management goals and invest in infrastructure and amenities in existing communities.
Washington's efforts to reduce sprawl could be more effective if the state spent its limited infrastructure funds more strategically to encourage growth within Urban Growth Areas. Maryland, for example, directs new development to "Priority Funding Areas" by focusing state support for growth-related projects within these areas. Maryland has prohibited funding for several growth-inducing projects outside of designated areas, including five highway bypass projects and a 550-acre tract that had been slated for development. In addition, Maryland directs state agencies to give priority for funding to central business districts, downtown core areas, empowerment zones and revitalization areas. These policies have prompted the relocation of two new district courthouses and a new county office building from the outskirts of town to downtown areas.
It is difficult to conduct an accurate assessment of the state’s achievements under growth management because the state has not established key benchmarks. The state does not collect pertinent data related to urban growth boundaries, farm and forest land loss, wetland loss, and other key indicators in order to measure performance in attaining GMA’s goals.
In addition, local governments’ compliance with the Act has varied dramatically. There are no consistent performance standards for the size of urban growth areas, the provision of affordable housing, the size of wetland and stream buffers, and the level of conservation for forest and agricultural lands. Citizens are largely responsible for enforcing the Act through appeals of plans and regulations to the Growth Management Hearings Boards.
The tenth anniversary of the Growth Management Act offers an important opportunity to reflect on our experience, and take a much needed step towards the next level of managing growth in Washington. After ten years of experience, the strengths and weakness of the existing approach are fairly clear. Although the Growth Management Act has started important changes in the patterns of growth and development in Washington, we will not succeed in protecting our quality of life without some important new tools and reforms.
The good news is that polls show tremendous concern about the impacts of over-development and support for many smart growth strategies. According to a recent Peter Hart poll of suburban Washington voters, more than 60 percent favor "strong limits on development to protect quality of life." Among these same voters, support for impact fees and for investing in mass transit rather than new roads reaches into the high 60s.
Now is the time to retool and innovate to take advantage of the lessons learned from the Washington experience and the recent experience of other states. Tapping into the public’s support and making continued progress on growth management will require diligence and political leadership, but is well worth it. Our quality of life and our future depend on it.
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