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Originally published April 13, 2009 at 11:59 AM | Page modified April 14, 2009 at 2:26 PM

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Guest columnist

Close loopholes in Washington's Growth Management Act

Business as usual is not working when it comes to sustaining the natural qualities of Puget Sound life, argues Joseph W. Tovar, president of the Washington chapter of the American Planning Association. He urges the Washington Legisature to enact legislation that will close loopholes in the Growth Management Act created by court rulings

Special to The Times

FOR several decades, we have relied upon state laws to sustain the quality of life in the Central Puget Sound region, even in the face of dramatic population and economic growth. Washington's Growth Management Act (GMA) and Shoreline Management Act (SMA) have directed city and county governments to conserve farm and forestlands, protect life and property from natural hazards, and safeguard the health of rivers, lakes and Puget Sound itself. However, even with these laws on the books, there is mounting evidence that "business as usual" is not working.

The water, air and land resources so essential to this region's sustainable future have never been more threatened. Urgent signals for needed reform went up in December, when the Puget Sound Partnership released a report documenting the declining health of Puget Sound. That report outlined the difficult but necessary changes needed to avert the extinction of marine life in our waters. As important as public education and restoration projects will be to cleaning up the Sound, at least one insightful wag pointed out "It's the land use, stupid!"

Continuing concerns over the survival of salmon and orca now share the public-policy stage with concerns about global warming. The Legislature's Land Use/Climate Change Advisory Committee also issued in December its recommendations for ways to connect the dots between greenhouse-gas emissions, vehicle miles traveled, transportation options and local land-use decisions. Although the resulting proposed legislation has foundered, one surviving component codifies an important strategy of "think globally, plan regionally, act locally."

Another unmistakable sign that existing land-use laws aren't getting the job done were the catastrophic floods of this winter. TV footage and newspaper articles illustrated the failure of existing laws to protect life and property in our river valleys. The Cedar, Snohomish and Stillaguamish rivers jumped their banks, wreaking serious environmental damage, untold human misery, and more than $125 million of flood damage to bridges, highways and roads.

Why haven't the GMA and SMA prevented, or at least lessened these environmental problems? Weren't these laws designed to protect air and water quality, reduce the loss of agricultural and forestlands, to say nothing of damages to life and property? The sad fact is that both the GMA and SMA have been watered down over the years by a series of actions. Some cities and counties, zealous to guard their turf and grow tax base, have bristled at state requirements, pushing back at limits on their discretion to make land-use decisions.

Past legislatures have responded to such complaints with changes to the law that give greater weight to narrow, parochial interests at the expense of the environment, the broader public interest and future generations. A state Supreme Court that is ideologically hostile to planning has compounded the problem. In one confused and perplexing decision last summer, a divided Court interpreted the GMA and SMA in a way that effectively wiped out local ordinances adopted to protect environmentally sensitive shorelines. Under the Court's tortured reasoning, such protections adopted under the GMA are set aside until 2011, when new SMA rules must be adopted.

Without restoring a balance between compelling state interests and local choices, this region's vision of an environmentally sustainable future will be sacrificed on the altar of "local control." Fortunately, the Legislature has some opportunities this session to rectify the imbalance. Two bills have passed the House and now await final action in the Senate.

Engrossed House Bill 1967 would prohibit the expansion of urban growth areas into the 100-year floodplains of Western Washington rivers. Undisputed science shows that urbanization of floodplains harms salmon habitat including rivers, streams and Puget Sound itself. That is why the Puget Sound Partnership recommends no more floodplain development. People have been saying for years that the worst places to urbanize are the floodplains of major rivers. HB 1967 would finally do something about it.

House Bill 1456 would prohibit the conversion of designated forestry and agricultural lands into so-called "Fully Contained Communities." In reality, "FCCs" are nothing of the sort. They are simply leapfrog sprawl on a grand scale. Redmond Ridge, just two miles from Redmond's city limits, is larger than many incorporated cities. Such "urban islands" inject urban impacts into the surrounding countryside, jam the rural road network, multiply vehicle miles driven and associated greenhouse-gas emissions. HB 1456 would not only help prevent the loss of forest and agricultural lands but also combat climate change.

What can you do to help achieve a sustainable long-term future for our region? Contact your state senator to urge support of EHB 1967 and HB 1456. Encourage your local elected officials to look beyond their own municipal boundaries and the upcoming fiscal year. Remind them that no city can have a sustainable long-term future, either environmentally or economically, unless the broader region does as well.

Finally, recognize that both EHB 1967 and HB 1456 are needed to close legal loopholes that were effectively widened by Supreme Court interpretations of the GMA. Pay attention this fall to the opinions and position statements of judicial candidates. They are elected officials, too, accountable to the voters for their actions. Their decisions will have a large impact in determining whether this region and this state have a sustainable future.

Joseph W. Tovar is president of the Washington Chapter of the American Planning Association. The chapter's report on other needed GMA reforms, "Toward a Smart Growth Strategy for Washington," is posted at

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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