I spent most of yesterday absorbing the Washington Growth Management Hearings Board’s 179-page decision, which found that more than twenty aspects of the rural land use plan and zoning regulations that the County Council adopted last year violate state law.
Some of the problems that the Board found are bigger than others. Some will require changing a few words; others will require some real thought on the County's part.
Before somebody chimes in that the Hearings Board is just a bunch of tree-hugging hippies who hate property rights, let me say this: all of the cards are stacked in the County’s favor under the Growth Management Act, or GMA.
- The County’s plan and development regulations are presumed valid. As the Board said, “This presumption creates a high threshold for challengers as the burden is on the petitioners to demonstrate that any action taken by the County is not in compliance with the GMA.”
- The Board must rule in favor of the County unless petitioners show that the County’s plan and regulations are “clearly erroneous.” In order to find the County's action clearly erroneous, the Board must be "left with the firm and definite conviction that a mistake has been committed."
- Finally, in reviewing the planning decisions of cities and counties, the Board is instructed to recognize "the broad range of discretion that may be exercised by counties and cities" and to "grant deference to counties and cities in how they plan for growth.""
It's a tough, tough law for challengers. The fact that the Board found more than 20 violations, even when it is required to give the County every possible benefit of the doubt, shows that there’s work to be done.
Without boring everyone with an exhaustive list, I do want to mention some of the main issues that concerned the Board. Even if I only talk about the main issues, it’s going to take a while. So this blog will just focus on one big issue: the issue of sprawl. In the next few days, I’ll talk about some of the other issues.
The Board found that the quantity, scale and intensity of development that the County planned for in rural areas does not prevent sprawl.
The sprawl issue has several components.
The County’s main task in this planning exercise was to establish “Limited Areas of More Intense Rural Development,” which are places where businesses and dense housing can be located outside of cities. These areas are supposed to be – yes – limited, but the County provided for uses that are larger and more intense than anything that most cities allow. The Board also found that many of the “limited” areas were too large. In techno-wonk terms, these issues are the LAMIRD zoning and LAMIRD boundary issues. These are the issues that led the Board to impose invalidity.
In addition, the Board found, more generally, that County’s plan did not contain “the necessary measures to reduce the inappropriate conversion of undeveloped land into sprawling, low-density development in the rural area.” The County argued that this is not the case, because its Plan includes a policy of concentrating growth in urban areas. As the Board states,
The Board notes Policy 200-1 - "Concentrate the majority of growth in urban areas" – has not in fact constrained the County from adopting land use designations that provide capacity for all its projected population growth to occur in rural lands. (Emphasis in the original.)
This takes us to the second sprawl-related issue: rural population.
The Board found that the Plan treats rural population inconsistently. This will require a little explanation.
The Growth Management Act requires the County to make sure that the County (including the cities) will plan and zone for enough development to accommodate population growth over the next 20 years. That means that the County has to show that enough land is available for development – whether through denser development within cities, through the expansion of cities onto undeveloped land, or by allowing more new development in rural areas – for everybody to have a home.
The County's Comprehensive Plan allocates growth to urban and rural areas based on the Office of Financial Management's (OFM) twenty-year forecast.
The County’s Plan says that 67,692 people will live in unincorporated rural Whatcom County by 2029. The 2010 population census shows there are already 65,041 people living in the County’s rural areas. So, supposedly, only 2,651 additional people will live outside of cities by 2029.
That’s just what the County’s Plan says.
What the County’s Plan does is completely different.
As the Hearings Board says,
[U]nrebutted evidence demonstrates that vacant lots in existing rural areas can accommodate 33,696 additional people, where only 2,651, are expected and the parcels created by the County's LAMIRD designations alone result in the potential for an increase in population of 4,512.
So the Plan says that only 2,651 additional people will live in rural areas, but the County has actually planned and zoned for enough houses to be built for at least 49,440 people outside of cities. The Plan is internally inconsistent.
Is 49,440 a lot or a little?
The County’s entire projected population growth by 2029 is 46,615.
In its rural area alone, without a single soul moving into a city, enough houses can be built for 2,825 more people than the County's entire projected population increase between now and 2029. And bear in mind that this is uncontested.
Why does this matter?
A low population “estimate” for the rural area means that the County’s Plan has to provide for more development in cities. More development in the cities means that the cities expand more onto undeveloped land.
In other words, the County is playing a shell game.
It is planning and zoning for an enormous amount of rural development, but its Plan pretends that these rural lots and rural residential zoning don’t exist. Then the Plan says that cities need to expand more, in order to accommodate population growth.
The result, as the Hearings Board found is a conflict with the goal of locating most population increases in cities. In other words, sprawl.