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Originally published February 5, 2009 at 4:10 PM | Page modified February 5, 2009 at 4:29 PM

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Guest columnist

Provide incentives for cities, residents to avoid sprawl

Sprawl is the most expensive way for a community to grow, notes Washington Rep. Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island. She makes a case for a bill she is sponsoring to require local governments to consider the impacts of their land-use decisions on climate change and to ensure that new growth around transit stations includes affordable housing.

Special to the Times

WHERE do you want to live? How do you want to get to work?

We all ask ourselves these questions, and every family has to make hard choices to answer them. We are left with a disagreeable choice: an hourlong car ride from a big house in a small town through nightmarish traffic to a job in the city, or a small house in town that is close enough to work that you can walk, and so expensive that you have to walk, because you can't afford a car.

Suburban sprawl has spread and spread until you could put a blindfold on a person and drive them two miles — or 200 miles — in any direction, and he couldn't tell you where he was, because all he would see are Home Depots, Starbucks and Taco del Mars.

Sprawl is also the most expensive way to grow. It means extending roads and building new schools and fire stations where we used to have farms, forests and wetlands.

Instead of building new roads that will sprout strip malls and subdivisions, we can try something different and smarter that will give us a higher quality of life.

Consider the frustration of driving on Interstate 5 when it becomes a parking lot, and of trying to drop the kids off at school, then drive to work without being late, never knowing how long it will take.

There is a better way to organize our neighborhoods and live our lives.

Instead of being tied to our cars, and to more highways and suburban sprawl, we should look to what our grandparents and great-grandparents did, and what people all over the world are doing.

Consider our neighbor to the south, Portland. Portland decided that everywhere a train would stop, they would plan so each community around that station would include affordable housing and neighborhood shops — and they would do it the right way from the beginning, instead of waiting for haphazard growth and then trying to fix it.

We can do that here too.

Next time you visit Portland, citizens of that city can tell you that when you're not dependent on cars and highways, your stress goes down, along with how much you pay at the pump and time wasted sitting in traffic. What goes up? The time you can spend with your family.

Less sprawl also creates a sense of community. Where people walk instead of drive, neighbors know each other because they see each other every day at the train station, the corner grocery store, the coffee shop. You can build a community when everybody is not driving past each other in their cars.

Sound Transit is building more rail lines — you've probably seen construction near Sea-Tac Airport — and throughout our state, the seesaw price of gas has more people riding trains, buses and passenger ferries.

Across the state, people want to live next to mass transit because it gives them better choices and a better quality of life.

For this reason, I have introduced legislation in the state House of Representatives that will help more families afford to live in communities served by transit. It asks local governments to consider the impacts of their land-use decisions on climate change and to ensure that new growth around transit stations includes affordable housing.

This legislation is needed because if we don't require affordable housing to be included as these areas develop, only the wealthy will be able to afford to live near mass transit. And we need to do it early, in the planning stages, because once a station goes in, housing values shoot up — out of reach for working families and the middle class.

I don't expect this to happen without a fight, as special interests are already trying to kill this idea.

If you want affordable communities where you can ride a train, a bus, or bike to work instead of sitting in traffic, then please call or e-mail your local lawmakers about this issue.

I believe that sense of community is worth having, and that we simply cannot afford the high costs of suburban sprawl. This legislation will help make transit-oriented communities an option for everyone — not just the wealthy in the Puget Sound region. Our kids deserve nothing less.

Rep. Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, represents the 34th Legislative District.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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