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Tiny counties seek exemption from Growth Management Act

February 9, 2013

By Jeff.Rhodes
The Olympia Report

Washington state lawmakers on Friday grappled with the question of whether the counties with little history — or prospect — of growth should be held to the same standards as their larger brethren under the state’s Growth Management Act.

Enacted in 1990 and 1991, the GMA is the comprehensive land-use planning framework for city and county governments in Washington state. The law establishes numerous requirements for local governments, including:

• adopting a countywide planning policy;
• adopting ordinances to protect areas designated as critical environmental areas;
• designating urban growth areas and directing future growth into those areas; and,
• adopting a comprehensive plan and regulations to implement that plan within four years.

Under the terms of House Bill 1224, which had a hearing in the House Local Government Committee, counties with a population of fewer than 20,000 residents would still be required to adopt a Critical Areas Ordinance, but could choose to opt out of the GMA’s more onerous requirements.

In all, the bill would affect only four Washington counties — Ferry, Pend Oreille, Garfield and Columbia.

“We’re talking about the smallest of the smallest,” said Rep. Joel Kretz (R-Wauconda), the measure’s prime sponsor. “If every single one of these counties opted in, it would affect less than 26,000 people.

“The GMA was passed in the 1990s to regulate urban sprawl and do some other good things,” he said. “But we’re not experiencing urban sprawl in Ferry County. For us, the law has been much more of a burden than a help.”

“We recognize we still have to do a certain amount of planning,” Ferry County Commissioner Brad Miller told the lawmakers, “but we’re looking for a little common sense here. The population in Ferry County is exactly what it was 100 years ago. We’re still trying to recover from a population loss in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Growth isn’t exactly a major issue for us.”

“We have a population of 13,001 — and one stoplight that we share with Idaho,” agreed Pend Oreille County Commissioner Karen Skoog. “We already have an abundance of plans, but what we don’t have is development. And what development we have, we’d like to keep in our county rather than driving it across the border into Idaho with more needless regulations.”

“The Growth Management Act was passed because Washington residents refused to trade off their environmental legacy in favor of economic expediency,” countered April Putney, representing the environmental activist group Futurewise. “That’s something Washingtonians still agree with.”

“Is the goal of the GMA to plan growth or to stop it altogether?” asked Rep. Vincent Buys (R-Lynden). “Why do we need a whole slate of regulations to manage growth in counties that aren’t seeing any growth and don’t anticipate any?”

“There is growth happening,” Putney answered. “There may not be as much as in other counties, but there is growth.”

Two members of the Freedom Foundation, an Olympia-based free-market, small government think tank, testified that the bill should not only be passed but expanded.

“We’re in favor of the bill as written, but we’d also favor raising the threshold from 20,000,” said Freedom Foundation Property Rights Director Glen Morgan. “In addition to the other problems with the bill, it creates the unintended consequence of giving the Growth Management Hearings Board more authority over local land-use decisions than the local government, which is far better equipped to decide for itself.”

“The regulatory burden the GMA places on small counties also shows up in larger counties,” added Scott Roberts, director of the Freedom Foundation’s Citizen Action Network. “It creates a chilling effect on a county’s economy by driving away businesses. If anything, that’s an even bigger problem in larger counties because they have more businesses to start with.”

Roberts urged Washington to think more like Florida, which recently replaced its Department of Planning with a Department of Economic Opportunity.

“The goal in that state is to encourage more development and bring in more jobs, not quash them with more regulations,” he said. “Florida didn’t stop doing land-use planning. It just got the state out of the planning business and returned that responsibility to local governments, where it belongs.”


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