WRC study takes a comprehensive look at a quarter century of the Growth Management Act and recommends changes

A new report from the Washington Research Council, The Growth Management Act at 25 Years, reviews a quarter century of the GMA: why it came into being, how it’s been revised, how it has affected growth and development, and how it might be improved. The research is informed by scholarship, interviews with key players and includes case studies for Spokane and Snohomish counties. 

At 41 pages, the study is not a light read, but it is an important one.

From the executive summary:

GMA’s principal feature was to limit urban growth within defined areas in order to contain development and prevent sprawl. Under the law, the state’s population and economic projections determine the amount and type of housing and jobs to be planned for in a 20-year time horizon. Two assumptions became firmly ingrained in this planning process: (1) that increasing population density is good; and (2) that urban growth area (UGA) expansion could lead to “the death of a thousand cuts,” where multiplying exceptions and expansions would eventually render the Act meaningless.

Today, more than 60 percent of a growing state populace still choose to live in detached, single-family housing, depleting current land inventories. In urban counties, Buildable Lands reports created to track and ensure adequate land for a mix of housing types are not uniformly distinguishing between single- and multi-family structures. Consumer choice will be limited by plans that may have projected enough units, but not enough land for the percentages of housing types that consumers prefer. GMA’s rigid UGA boundaries are heading for a collision with other policy goals that are rising in priority, including housing affordability, economic disparities, and the need for new schools. GMA planning mandates “concurrency,” which means that infrastructure, including roads and bridges, must keep up with growth. But congested roads, principally in Western Washington, threaten to cripple the mobility which is vital to economic progress. The recently passed transportation package will, at best, slow our march toward gridlock.

Twenty-five years ago few would have predicted the rapid growth in the state’s major metro areas and the attendant strain on housing and transportation. The WRC points both to the GMA’s accomplishments and to ongoing areas of concern.

Since the GMA was enacted, sprawl has slowed, planning has become more professional and uniform, and resource lands have been carved out. These are results proponents justifiably point to as successes when evaluating the GMA. Density can create livable, wonderful neighborhood areas and efficient infrastructure. More of our citizens who want to live in already densely-populated urban neighborhoods can be accommodated—a victory for freedom of choice and efficiency.

But the centralized planning and the rigidity of growth boundaries and land designations geared toward “smart growth” and high densities can be problematic because not everyone wants to live that way. Those in the urban Puget Sound area seeking single-family homes are finding their options increasingly limited. Cost is pushing them to the periphery of urban areas in various parts of the state, effectively negating the goal to reduce sprawl.

We’ve written here often about the challenges of housing affordability, efficient and safe transportation corridors, and environmental regulation. The GMA touches on all of these issues and concerns. Policymakers who want to address them successfully will benefit from the WRC’s comprehensive analysis.