Despite the challenges of accommodating growth in 2016 and beyond, regional leaders should work to uphold the state’s landmark Growth Management Act.
AS the Puget Sound region enters another year of struggling to manage growth, elected officials will consider numerous responses.
One recently floated option should be rejected immediately: rejiggering King County’s urban-growth boundary that has protected farmland and open space from sprawl since 1990.
The boundary is not a relief valve to be opened when the going gets tough. Rather, it’s there to preserve permanently the region’s vital diversity of land uses, habitat and rural economic activity.
This urban-rural mix is one reason the Puget Sound remains a beautiful, livable place. It provides a variety of lifestyle options that help companies like Microsoft and Amazon.com attract top talent, especially those seeking a nicer place to live than Silicon Valley.
Policy change is in the air around the region. Density-at-all-costs is now in vogue among some regional leaders. Environmentalists have linked arms with developers, pursuing a utopian fantasy that people would stop driving if more land were used for high-density development.
Sadly, they’ve framed the discussion as either-or — either relax zoning regulations to increase density or people will be unable to live here.
That’s false. It ignores the fact that current zoning — in Seattle and elsewhere in the region — has enough capacity for all the growth expected in coming decades.
King County’s urban-growth area “has a generous surplus of capacity to contain growth: more than double the housing target and more than 160 percent of the job target,” according to the county’s latest land-capacity analysis, in 2014.
There’s already room to build what’s needed without sacrificing land-use rules that preserve livability and provide certainty to people investing their lives here.”
In other words, there’s already room to build what’s needed without sacrificing land-use rules that preserve livability and provide certainty to people investing their lives here. Those rules include the Eastside’s urban boundary and cities’ single-family zoning.
What’s dwindling is easily developable property in the most desirable areas. Easy pickings are gone — subdividable tracts in Sammamish are as scarce as vacant lots in Ballard.
That’s not a crisis — that has been the plan all along. The landmark 1990 Growth Management Act funnels most growth into urban areas while preserving precious natural spaces and lower-density residential areas.
Some of the act’s outcomes are disappointing. It was also supposed to preserve livability by giving cities growth-management tools, such as impact fees, to fund infrastructure and handle the density they’d absorb. But some cities, especially Seattle, failed to use these tools and are overwhelmed by recent growth.
Even so, there are reasons to press on. If growth limits hold, including the urban boundary and in-city zoning limits, they’ll eventually boost poorer communities that missed the recent surge of economic activity.
That’s the real supply-and-demand issue.
As prosperous areas fill, growth and revitalization should spread to underdeveloped urban areas where there’s still land supply.
Light rail enables this dispersion regionally. By improving commutes between Everett, Tacoma and Seattle, rail helps fill out urban areas along the Interstate 5 corridor.
Unfortunately, this “share the wealth” effect is being undermined in Seattle, where the region’s density peaks.
As suburban developers press up against the urban boundary, in-city builders and supportive politicians are poised to tear down boundaries between low- and high-density residential areas. This is being done at the behest of builders who want to squeeze more apartments into areas largely maxed out under current zoning.
Seattle’s outgoing development director, Diane Sugimura, acknowledged this creates new options outside the South End, where developers are reluctant to invest.
“Private developers, they’re not going to go there right now,” she told The Seattle Times editorial board last summer.
So there’s not a shortage of space to build homes. Changes are sought because developers would prefer to build in more lucrative areas, where they’re now limited by land-use rules.
As long as the region has capacity for all the growth in sight, elected officials should stand firm and uphold the Growth Management Act. Its principles are needed now more than ever.