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September 15, 2008

Opinion: Land use laws should reflect today's reality

Special to the Journal

Seattle's discussion of growth and land use is missing a focus on values and vision. Multi-family tax exemptions, incentive zoning, design guidelines for townhomes and expanding the transfer of development rights have been offered as solutions to everything from global warming to the lack of affordable housing.

But there's one question no one is asking: What are we hoping to achieve through our land use regulations?


Our land use code needs to be rewritten through a community process based on our values and our vision about how to welcome growth.

The Supreme Court's 1926 Euclid decision established the constitutionality of zoning to protect health and safety. Judges at all levels consistently give local government discretion in determining what that means. The Growth Management Act and neighborhood planning give us a clear basis and boundaries for a rewrite.

Leaders and advocates seem paralyzed by the arcane nature of our code. Change comes with maps unrolled and pointed to by lawyers, planners and city staff. Floor area ratio and percentage of area median income are argued over. Confusion and anxiety mounts but change is incremental if made at all.

The code should reflect our values, not the other way around. Some planners, attorneys and city staff think our current code is the only place to start planning and preparing for growth.

The code is in our way. Instead of being the tool to realize a bold vision of the future, it is a morass of confusing terminology and concepts that encourage nibbling around the edges rather than fundamental change. Incentive zoning, for example, becomes a battle over FAR and AMI rather than a debate about the value of affordability.

Today's code is built on the post-World War II idea of middle class families building equity through home ownership. That meant dedicating 60 percent of Seattle's land to detached single-family homes with yards and only 9 percent to multifamily housing.

Is this our vision of the future? With 1.7 million new people coming to this region, we need to reconsider the sanctity of the single-family neighborhood and the code that privileges that use. Our future should be built substantially on the values of affordability, livability and sustainability through a better mix of uses.

Our land use laws ought to reflect the reality of today: our hopes for the future, not the dreams of the past.

Roger Valdez is a former city council and legislative staffer. Currently, he is a consultant with an interest in using zoning to support neighborhood arts and cultural organizations.

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