[Protecting the Environment]


Washington Environmental Council

More than 1.7 million people. That's the number of new residents Washington will have to accommodate by 2015 according to estimates of the state Office of Financial Management. The figure represents a 31.5 percent population increase in two decades.

The impacts these people will have on our environment, roads, schools, public facilities, water supplies, open space and our quality of life, will be enormous and potentially harmful, if we do not plan for the livability of our communities. Protecting Washington's quality of life is essential to maintaining our state's vibrant economy.

Sprawl may seem inexpensive for a homebuyer but its costs can be crippling.
The majority of Washington's cities and counties recognize the need to balance growth with protection of the areas and amenities that make our state such an exceptional place to live, work, play and invest. Currently, most jurisdictions are in compliance with the state's Growth Management Act (GMA), the landmark legislation designed to empower local citizens to take control of their future through comprehensive land use planning.

"Little" governments, such as Douglas County and the cities of Eatonville and Camas, are among the cities and counties complying with the GMA. In total, nearly 60 percent of Washington's jurisdictions have adopted comprehensive plans, 87 percent have ordinances that designate and protect resource lands and nearly 90 percent have designated and protected environmentally sensitive areas.

Residents who have lived in Washington a generation or more know that the price of unmanaged growth is not cheap. We pay for it with increased traffic congestion, sprawl, diminished recreation, higher taxes, overcrowded schools, and lost business opportunities. Citizens are smart enough to know that the costs are both real and intangible. A growing number of studies validate this intuition.

The Bank of California, that state's largest bank, released a 1995 report which concluded, "Continued sprawl may seem inexpensive for a new homebuyer or a growing business on the suburban fringe, but the ultimate costs -- to those homebuyers, to the government, and society at large -- is potentially crippling."

The report also predicted dire consequences for unmanaged growth. "Ironically, unchecked sprawl has shifted from an engine of California's growth to a force that now threatens to inhibit growth and degrade that quality of life. This acceleration of sprawl has enormous social, environmental and economic costs, which until now have largely been ignored, or quietly borne by society. The burden of these costs is becoming clear. Businesses suffer from higher costs, loss of worker productivity, and under utilized investments in older communities."

A 1992 study by the Center for Urban Studies at Rutgers University found that taxpayers pick up most of the tab -- an estimated $12,000 to $15,000 more per home -- to serve sprawling developments as opposed to more compact designs. This "sprawl tax" is a burden on existing homeowners and an area's economy.

Given the increasing body of knowledge demonstrating the costs of unplanned growth, claims that the GMA harms local interests are rather ironic.

Recently, the law has risen to the forefront of public debate due to the refusal of Chelan County Commissioners to comply with the GMA. Governor Lowry recently announced that the state will withhold transportation funds worth $2 million from that county if it does not take steps to conserve farm land and environmentally sensitive areas. Two of Chelan's three commissioners continue to openly rebel against the law and pursue lawsuits to challenge the constitutionality of state growth management guidelines.

Disdain for the GMA was readily apparent when the Farm Bureau led a protest at the state's capital in late May. In a press release preceding the rally, State House Speaker Clyde Ballard claimed that bureaucrats were exercising "dictatorial power" and "invading our cities and counties" to take away local control.

Three of the nine gubernatorial contenders have stated they would repeal the GMA and nearly all of the candidates support new legislative restraints on the power of the Growth Management Hearings Boards (GMHB).

The GMHBs were created to serve as a "people's court," which provide a quasi-legal forum for local citizens to appeal land use decisions. The hearings boards are designed to give citizens equal footing on par with local government and developer attorneys and provide a venue for citizens to hold governments accountable for local land use decisions.

And decide they have. Local governments have taken 1,600 actions under the GMA. Approximately 20 percent of these actions -- 326 cases -- have been appealed to the boards. Of the cases appealed, 80 percent of the rulings have been in favor of local governments. Most astonishing, only 11 actions -- not even 1 percent -- have been found to be in continued noncompliance with the law. Furthermore, State Superior Court has not yet overturned a hearings board decision.

These statistics are compelling when assessing how GMA is working.

Many local governments, however, are beginning to recognize the law's flexibility and benefits in far more practical terms.

The city of Camas will create 800 new jobs as a result of a $1.2 billion dollar investment by Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. The company required competing cities to complete a questionnaire regarding services, public facilities and quality of life. Camas city officials credit their GMA plan with their ability to respond promptly to this competitive inquiry.

Companies have cited the importance of local growth plans in their investment selections including: State Farm, whose new regional facility in DuPont will create 1,700 jobs; SEH America, which will expand a silicon wafer manufacturing plant in Vancouver worth 600 jobs; Matsushita, whose computer chip manufacturing expansion in Puyallup will generate 100 to 300 jobs; and, Intel Corporation, which is building a new research and manufacturing plant in DuPont that will create 6,000 new jobs.

An agreement earlier this year between Thurston County and a developer demonstrates the flexibility jurisdictions are exercising under the GMA.

The county wanted to protect unique prairie lands containing Mima Mounds, rare creations six feet high and averaging 20 to 30 feet in diameter that are thought to have been formed by an earthquake or the retreat of glaciers. The mounds were designated critical areas under county ordinance which apparently blocked a proposed 330-acre development.

However, under the agreement between the county and developer, 51 acres of the Mima Mounds will be protected while allowing the developer to "cluster" homes on the remaining lots. This agreement may actually result in a greater number of homes being built. The developer's attorney stated the agreement was as close to a win-win solution that he had seen in representing clients in three decades.

Other counties, such as Pierce, are seeking to protect their rural character through similar "clustering" approaches. The city of Tacoma has developed critical areas' regulations that protect important wetlands while allowing development to proceed.

The flexibility and benefits of the GMA are welcome news when the media seems intent on portraying stories of "jobs versus the environment." Citizens tire of such false choices in an era when community and quality of life seems to be in constant decline.

In December of 1995, more than 64 Northwest economists released a report called, "Economic Well-Being and Environmental Protection in the Pacific Northwest." The consensus report challenged the tired assumption that we must choose between our economy and quality of life. Quite the contrary, these economists noted that the region's changing economy and long-term economic well being was tied to environmental protection. Among the economists' conclusions: "As long as the region is able to provide a quality of life that many people find attractive, it should continue to prosper."

The investment world is reaffirming these sentiments. The November 1994 issue of Money magazine ranked Bellingham, Seattle/Tacoma, Portland/Vancouver and Spokane among the top 20 best places for entrepreneurs. Among the primary factors considered in this ranking was "a good quality of life."

Business-minded people recognize the intrinsic value of clean air and clean water. A readers' poll in Money magazine's 1996 issue of Best Places to Live ranked environmental factors just slightly behind "low crime rate" as the most important characteristics for choosing a place to live. In the 1995 survey, "clean air" and "clean water" topped the Readers' Poll.

The GMA is designed to protect these values that are increasingly rare assets in today's world.

Despite the GMA's high rate of success, misperceptions about the law persist. An increasingly vocal minority claims we should abandon the GMA just as its tough medicine is beginning to cure our growing ailments. A weakened GMA threatens to undermine not only our quality of life, but the region's economy as well.

Can we accommodate growth in the Evergreen State without sacrificing our quality of life?

With smart community planning under GMA we can. The GMA provides an opportunity for citizen investment in the livability of our communities. Ultimately, this is a sound investment in the region's economy.

David Mann is president of the Washington Environmental Council.

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Copyright © 1996 Seattle Daily Journal of Commerce.