Gig Harbor faces a growth challenge as a six-month moratorium on the construction of residential buildings is about to expire; the city’s population growth outstrips even that of Seattle.
Five months ago, Gig Harbor approved a six-month moratorium on residential development in hopes of finding a way to manage the city’s growth.
“It’s a pause and a reset,” Gig Harbor Planning Director Jennifer Kester said. “The desire is to get to more responsible growth.”
The Planning Department has put “two years of work into four months,” according to Kester, and so far two ordinances that combine a number of amendments have come before the council in public meetings. The first ordinance, Ordinance No. 1389, has passed and the second group of amendments, called Group 2, is set to come to the council on July 9. Two more ordinances, referred to by council as the Group 3 and Group 4 amendments, will be considered after the expected expiration of the moratorium.
While some people praise the council’s efforts, others say it is not doing enough to address the regional housing crisis.
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“The city is a relatively small portion of Pierce County’s housing area,” Pierce County Council Member Derek Young said. “This moratorium won’t have as big of an impact as if Puyallup or Tacoma also decided to stop growth … But if you reduce the housing supply, that will naturally increase prices. It will also price people out of existing housing.”
In the last five years, Gig Harbor’s population grew by 33 percent, well above Seattle, which grew 19 percent in the last five years.
“The raw numbers are higher in Seattle, but when it comes to the percentage of the community, they are not seeing anywhere near the growth we are,” Gig Harbor City Council Member Spencer Hutchins said. “So we have to spend a lot of money on infrastructure.”
The Gig Harbor City Council chose Hutchins on Monday night to fill the seat vacated by Rahna Lovorich, who unexpectedly resigned in November.
Hutchins, who was previously a member of the city’s planning commission, said the city has seen a 200 percent increase in need for infrastructure resources and a 300 percent increase in calls for service for the city’s civil resources.
“Gig Harbor is a desirable place to live,” Kester said. “There is land available. A lot of land is being consumed, and we are having a lot of growth. And we are not so sure that’s how we want to continue. And if we are going to grow in the future, is this the way we want to?”
The regional housing crisis has made Gig Harbor the most expensive place to live in the county. The median price for May was nearly $500,000, up $6,110 from a year ago, according to a home sales report from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service.
A study from the group SmartAsset, an online financial technology and advice company, ranked Gig Harbor as the best place to retire in Washington.
The study’s research shows over 25 percent of residents in Gig Harbor are retirees.
While a growing population has put a strain on the city’s resources, Young says people who are outside the city but in the greater Gig Harbor Peninsula also are contributing to problems.
“And a lot of the traffic is coming from people outside of the city coming in for services. The vast majority of the population lives outside of the city. It’s about 50,000 who live on the Gig Harbor Peninsula. But less than a fifth lives in the city.” Young said.
Council member Spencer Hutchins said removing minimum densities in the city was one change he was most proud of.
“I think the change in minimum densities is huge,” Hutchins said. “I’m a property-rights guy. And while (minimum densities) may flow toward increased growth that the (Growth Management Act) would like to see, I see it as a restriction on what a property owner is allowed to do.”
The removal of minimum densities also caught the eye of the Washington Department of Commerce, which advises municipalities about upcoming housing legislation.
Ike Nwankwo, Western Washington manager of growth management services for the Department of Commerce, said the department was concerned over elimination of housing minimums, which could make housing costs rise and add on to the homelessness crisis the state faces.
“We know you have the capacity,” Nwankwo told the council. “It’s not about the capacity … it’s about affordability.”
The last big push the city is making, according to Kester, is protecting Gig Harbor’s natural environment. That will be considered mostly with the Group 2 amendments being presented to the council in July.
“The reason I don’t agree, I know what the market is bearing right now,” said Hutchins, who owns a real estate agency. “What the market is bearing right now, for the most part, is single-family rambler-style homes, accessible to retirees and millennials who don’t want the McMansion-style house.”
Young says he is still concerned the city he grew up in will continue to price out the middle-class and younger families.
“Don’t get me wrong; nothing they could do could turn this into a place that will have great affordable housing overnight,” Young said. “But how much can you nudge either direction in the margins, I worry about that.”