Growth Management Act legislation would allow small counties to ‘opt out’
WNPA Olympia News Bureau — Among a slew of legislative proposals introduced this session focusing on Washington’s Growth Management Act (GMA), two, which would allow counties with smaller populations to opt out of full planning under the act, were approved by committees and advance in their respective chambers for further consideration.
Senate Bill 5636, sponsored by Sen. John Smith (R-7th District, Colville) and HB 1224, sponsored by Rep. Joel Kretz (R-7th District, Wauconda), would allow counties with less than 20,000 residents to remove themselves from the GMA requirements.
Four counties would qualify under population limit provisions in the two bills: Ferry, Pend Oreille, Columbia and Garfield.
Both bills were introduced in order to address the alleged burdens the GMA places on rural areas throughout the state that experience little fluctuation in population and economic growth from year to year.
Proponents of both measures believe that local government officials should have greater control over their planning and land use policies rather than leaving oversight to the seven-person, governor-appointed state Growth Management Hearings Board (GMHB).
“This measure is important because it’s about preserving and protecting local community viability and giving small counties the right and flexibility to save money and make decisions that would produce the best economic and environmental outcomes for their community,” said Smith. “It is time to unleash the strength of character and innovation that has been sequestered in our rural counties for far too long.”
The GMA is a land-use planning measure that outlines 14 goals that attempt to employ environmentally friendly means to managing population growth. Requirements include identifying urban growth areas, protecting natural resource lands and composing critical area plans, among others.
Counties planning under the GMA that violate its requirements are subject to appeals often brought either by conservation groups, other organizations or individuals. Appeals, called petitions of review, are brought to the GMHB, at which time the board decides if a county is in or out of compliance with GMA standards.
Thirty petitions of review against counties were filed with the GMHB in 2012. Only two cases found counties in non-compliance, according to the board’s data. Several appeals made in 2012 remain under review. From 2005 to 2012, nearly 40 percent of the petitions of review filed found counties non-compliant.
While the bill is intended to help counties and cities that claim they have suffered economically as a result of complying with the GMA, conservation groups say that the act is necessary to assure land-planning reflects the interests of both economic development and environmental preservation.
“The Growth Management Act asks our communities to think holistically about the future, to think about housing, job opportunities, economic development, the environment,” said April Putney of FutureWise, a conservation-interest group.
“All of these things, in conjunction with each other, is strong policy whether you are a really large community, small community or how fast you’re growing,” she said.
Proponents of the bills observed, however, that regulation required by the GMA thwarts economic development and reforms must be made to make the law more business-friendly.
Pend Oreille County Commissioner Karen Skoog argued that small border counties such as hers, in the northeast corner adjacent to Idaho and with only about 13,000 residents, risk businesses bleeding into other states, thus adversely affecting the counties’ economies. Allowing these counties to remove themselves from the GMA would lessen some of the regulations that drive businesses out of Washington, said Skoog.
“The mandates and requirements of the GMA create a crippling and cumbersome bureaucratic process for smaller counties,” Smith said.
Rep. David Taylor (R-15th District, Moxee), who is responsible for crafting several House bills that would have significantly limited the scope of the GMA, predicts that within 18 months of the removal of the law, Washington would experience a significant increase in economic development.
While some fear that allowing these counties to back away from GMA requirements would stall conservation efforts, Taylor maintained that because of the many overlapping environmental policies in the state, it would be excessive to think that local governments do not have the capacity to responsibly plan for their counties and cities.
“It’s a duplicative law that serves no purpose other than to provide nongovernmental organizations the opportunity to cost local taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars,” he said.
Washington has six other land-planning and management laws on the books, including the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), the Shoreline Management Act and the Planning Enabling Act, which authorizes counties to manage land development under the given guidelines in the law. The Planning Enabling Act was enacted in 1959.
Several county officials, including Ferry County Commissioner Brad Miller, have said that even if they chose to opt out of the GMA as provided by the proposed measures, they would continue to plan with the same basic principles of economic and environmental viability.
Ferry County’s population is about 7,600 and hasn’t changed in more than 100 years, said Miller. So, the question has been raised by lawmakers and county officials as to why communities with such low growth as that in Ferry County should be subjected to the same rules dictated by the GMA as apply to the larger, more urban counties.
“I have a hard time believing that all of growth management’s requirements and issues are really necessary in some of the smaller counties that aren’t urban at all,” said Rep. Dean Takko (D-19th District, Longview), one of the sponsor’s of the House bill.
“I’m not anti-growth-management,” he said. “I just think there are places where it makes sense and places where it doesn’t.”
Some, however, would like to do away with the GMA entirely. Taylor, for example, said that the law fails to give due deference to local leaders and has grown so large in scope from its original intent that it has turned into a financial bane for counties, cities, businesses and taxpayers.
“What was supposed to be a bottom-up planning process driven by citizens and with substantial deference given to local decision makers turned into a bottom-down, state-mandated, one-size-fits-all program that just simply doesn’t work,” said Taylor.
The Moxee representative is disappointed with, among other GMA-related issues, the cost the appeals process places on counties and the bureaucratic make-up of the GMHB, which he said has very little accountability to the people the law affects.
Though Taylor has signed onto several GMA-related bills, he says legislation that isolates only part of the problem won’t address what he expressed as the myriad onerous regulations the act imposes.
“The piecemeal fix just isn’t going to work,” he said.
Taylor sponsored a bill that would have eliminated the GMA but it failed to receive the nod from Chairman Takko of the House Local Government Committee before policy legislation cut-off Feb 22.
On Jan. 18, private citizens and interest groups testified against the GMA during a work session hosted by members of the House Local Government Committee. While their grievances with the law varied, most agreed that the law has outgrown its original scope.
Glen Morgan, property-rights director with the Freedom Foundation said, “If the road to hell is paved with good intentions then the GMA has become a freeway.”
Still others would simply like the GMA process to be audited. Since its 1991 passage into law, the GMA has never been officially reviewed for its effect on local economies and its success in meeting the 14 goals outlined in the act.
While testimony on the GMA was overwhelmingly in opposition to it, representatives from conservation groups maintained that the law as it stands now is an efficient means to protect the environment without treading on private-property rights.
Both Putney and Darcy Nonemacher of the Washington Environmental Council have testified against numerous bills this session that would, if passed, limit the GMA. The two agree that the bills introduces unduly restrict the intention of the law.
“[SB 5636 and HB 1224] undermines the existing purpose of the law to provide clear and consistent objectives that everybody is trying to reach,” said Nonemacher.
Putney agreed and said that limiting the law would actually defy the will of Washingtonians as they supported the formation of the GMA.
“[The GMA was created] because Washingtonians refused to believe that the natural legacy had to be sacrificed for economic prosperity,” she said.
SB 5636 was approved Feb. 18 by the Senate Government Operations Committee on a party-line 4-3 vote. HB 1224 was approved by a 5-3 bipartisan vote in the House Local Government Committee Friday (Feb. 22).