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Originally published Wednesday, April 9, 2008 at 12:00 AM


Guest columnist

Smart land-use regulations create a sense of community

Washington state displayed inept leadership when it ignored Section 701 of the 1954 National Housing Act, which provided funds and established...

Special to The Times

Washington state displayed inept leadership when it ignored Section 701 of the 1954 National Housing Act, which provided funds and established exacting professional standards for comprehensive city planning.

Most other states availed themselves of the act's time-tested planning procedures. Playing politics was forbidden in the planning process, so that growth would be directed by facts and reason — to encourage a sense of community.

Unfortunately, by the late 1980s, after the decimation of the act by Republican presidents, Washington state lawyers, recognizing the need for growth and development standards and an opportunity for billable hours, lifted elements of Oregon's development policies and lobbied the Legislature to enact the Growth Management Act. Recommendations for a state plan were thwarted and technical planning information came from professional business lobbyists rather than professional city planners.

There is a decided difference between lawyers and planners in thinking and planning. Lawyers look to the past for minute precedents, and concentrate on myopic solutions, one situation at a time. Planners research broad historical vistas, analyze the present, and then project to the future. They may formulate alternative plans for governmental bodies to select.

If professional city planners are demoted to draftsmen, blueprinting the suggestions of lawyers or administrators, then their objectivity, research and design expertise are lost. They must have the independence and professional respect to express their findings.

An unwieldy, politically vulnerable Growth Management Act should be replaced by a professionally staffed Washington State Planning Agency. This agency should be tasked with the mission of designing an objective state plan, dispersing population, and assisting local communities in preparing for growth, global warming, environmental sustainability and housing for all.

The picture is distorted by a recent study by a University of Washington economist alleging that development rules add something like $200,000 to the cost of the median-priced house in Seattle.

There is no mystery to the pricing of housing. A developer or owner estimates what the market will bear, or the maximum price for which a house can be sold, and sets a price based on competition. Negotiations may occur. The sales price is influenced, but only indirectly and sometimes very little, by regulatory costs. The control is the market estimate at that time, which can vary appreciably.

Regulations may require sidewalks, but it is not the rules that increase the cost; the increase reflects the value added by the sidewalks. If home insulation is mandated by the rules, then the value increase is due to the insulation, not the rules. Yes, the homeowner could have insulation blown in after occupation, but the estimated cost is almost double that of doing it when building the house.

The issue becomes: What amenities are to be provided, and when? Or, if regulations are ignored, the quality of life would be diminished and the intrinsic value of property shriveled.

In Seattle, home sales and asking prices reflect high incomes from high-tech sources more than they do development rules. Potential buyers simply have the incomes to pay the higher cost. If the average upper incomes in Seattle were $30,000 to $50,000 per year less, the price of housing would be considerably reduced.

Growth adds to infrastructure needs, so it is expensive to the community in ways other than housing costs. Who should pay for the burdens of additional schools, parks, playgrounds and the like, and when?

The implementation of regulations and standards protects people and property, enhances livability, prevents diseases and hardships, provides convenience, resolves disputes, and assists in creating a sense of community.

The people — sovereign in our country — insist upon being in control. They want and deserve protections and amenities, planned and administered by professionals who recognize the relationships of land use and understand that, as in the inevitability of gravity, everything affects everything else.

My conviction is that the best way to lower costs would be to develop a new community, in coordination with a government entity, as several states and European and Asian countries have done. Establish a nonprofit land-development corporation, acquire a huge parcel outside the congested Seattle area, and within it allocate land for desirable usages — housing for all incomes, and employment. Costs for utilities, transportation and amenities could be greatly reduced and convenience and a sense of community could prevail.

Does the will exist in Washington for such an endeavor?

John D. Borah of Port Angeles headed planning and community-development agencies in Indiana, New York and Minnesota, among other jurisdictions, and is a former chairman of the Clallam County Planning Commission.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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