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Opt-out bill hailed as first sign GMA could be eliminated

by Jeff Rhodes
The Olympia Report

Posted 3/17/2014

Property rights advocates are hailing a bill passed overwhelmingly by the Washington State Senate on Tuesday as potentially the first crack in the Growth Management Act dam.

Passed by the Legislature in 1990, the GMA requires state and local governments to manage Washington’s growth by identifying and protecting critical areas and natural resource lands, designating urban growth areas, preparing comprehensive plans and implementing them through capital investments and development regulations.

This approach to growth management is not unique among states. Florida rejected its 30-year-old “Smart Growth” state planning scheme on which Washington’s GMA was modeled in 2011.  Other states still are experimenting with various types of similar Central Planning schemes.

Opponents, however, have criticized Washington’s GMA as a one-size-fits-all standard that makes no sense for the state’s smaller communities, whose limited populations make urban planning unnecessary.

Senate Bill 6194, passed on the floor of the Senate on Tuesday by a 46-1 margin, would give counties with fewer than 50,000 residents the ability to opt out of the GMA’s rigid — and expensive — planning requirements.

Similar bills have been proposed in previous legislative sessions, but they have always been shot down by Futurewise, a Seattle-based environmental advocacy group promoting the philosophy of “Smart Growth.” This year, however, freshman Sen. Brian Dansel (R-Republic) was able to negotiate a compromise with Futurewise leaders that Senate Democrats, in turn, signed off on.

The margin of victory and Futurewise’s support suggest the legislation will win approval in the Democrat-dominated House, as well.

“The Growth Management Act is a prime example of how the Legislature looks at a problem in an urban area, like urban sprawl, and then passes legislation to try and address this throughout the state,” Dansel said. “The result is a costly, difficult process that is trying to address a problem that, in many places, isn’t there.”

As written, Dansel’s bill affects four counties — Ferry, Garfield, Columbia and Pend Orielle. Two of these — including Ferry County, where Dansel serves as a county commissioner — were currently in the process of complying with the GMA. Under terms of the compromise with Futurewise, they must complete the process but can opt out afterwards.

Counties will still have to engage in land-use planning under the Critical Areas Ordinance and must still prepare a regular comprehensive plan, but those who opt out would not be subject to the even more burdensome GMA standards.

The measure also offers offers a measure of legal protection to counties facing environmental lawsuits.

“It’s just a fact that there are parts of the state that aren’t under the same kind of pressure from growth as the Puget Sound region,” said Sen. Christina Rolfes (D-Poulsbo). “And it doesn’t make sense for them to engage in the same level of planning.”

“This bill is simply recognizes that if you stop talking about people and start talking to them, you can come up with something palatable for both sides,” Dansel said.

“There are several smaller counties that wisely never even started down the GMA road,” said Glen Morgan, property rights manager for the Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based “think and action tank.”

“The counties this legislation will affect were originally enticed to participate with the promise of grant money,” he said. “Once they got involved, though, they realized they were the victim of bait and switch. This gives them a chance to back out without being harmed even more than they already have.”

By itself, Morgan said, Dansel’s bill isn’t a game-changer. But it’s a step that represents a change in public attitudes where land use is concerned.

“Up to this point, Futurewise and the Democrat legislators have resisted any sort of limitations to the GMA, and they’ve been forced to defend some utterly absurd positions,” he said. “They’ve taken a real beating to their credibility as a result, and I think they were forced to give up something they didn’t want to.

“They may think this is as far as it goes,” Morgan said, “But this is just the beginning. The momentum is in the favor of people who want to bring some common sense and logic to the area of land-use regulations, not those who were using the GMA as their justification for stifling human ingenuity and destroying the rural lifestyle anywhere in the state.”

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