Growth planning unending, difficult

An expert on the state’s 14-year-old Growth Management Act told island planners and political leaders Saturday that the legislative mandate is nearly unmanageable, frought with political landmines, and void of guidance.

“I am the bearer of bad tidings,” said Sandy Mackie, an attorney with Perkins and Coie in Olympia. “The Legislature has given you a task for which there is no right answer, for which you can be sued by either side, and either side can win.”

Mackie led a seminar Saturday for Island County’s three commissioners, the mayors of Oak Harbor, Coupeville, and Langley, and local planners. The seminar was put on by the Whidbey Island Association of Realtors.

Every day, said Mackie, baby boomers are reaching retirement age in extraordinary numbers. A number of them move to Whidbey, buy $300,000 houses, each have a half-million dollars in various retirement accounts, “and then attend the next planning meeting to say that something has to be done to control growth on the island.”

Mayors and commissioners and planners chuckled and shook their heads in understanding.

“Am I pretty close?” he asked. “As they (boomers) move, they move in such numbers that they are a huge economic entity and they are changing the world we live in.”

The Growth Management Act is targeted specifically for popular destinations like Whidbey Island, with a burgeoning population, limited space, and critical habitat and shoreline areas that must be maintained in the face of this growth. The intention behind the act is to maintain natural resources by concentrating populations in urban areas and then developing the infrastructure necessary to meet certain standards or levels of service.

In addition to the three island cities, the unincorporated communities of Freeland and Clinton have been designated urban development areas by the county. The county and cities are in the process of updating the various growth management plans to meet a December 2005 deadline.

But what does it mean?

“People don’t understand that growth management doesn’t mean no growth,” said Coupeville Mayor Nancy Conard, “it means managed growth.”

Pete Friedman, planning director for Langley, said that city is in good shape with its plan, although it will be taking a closer look at protecting natural resources based on the state-mandated “best available science.”

“No one knows exactly what it is,” Friedman said. “What we’re really after is protecting the functions and values of the wetlands and what we need to know is how to best do that.”

The Department of Ecology interpreted best available science simply as a 300-foot buffer around critical habitat areas. Mackie was sharply critical of the state, saying best available science argues that quality of the habitat is more important than quantity.

He showed a chart that illustrated that 70 percent of the habitat benefit is found in the first 70 feet. The next 300 feet of buffer adds only 10 percent more to the habitat value, he said.

The City of Olympia, he pointed out, requires a habitat buffer, but exempts public parks. Making a claim that a park is okay but a lawn is not is “intellectually dishonest,” he said.

Critical areas were one of the top wrangling issues in Island County’s years-long process of developing a new comprehensive land use plan that complied with the GMA. The county finished that plan, under threat of state sanction, in 1999. It was one of the last two Washington counties to finish a GMA-compliant plan.

The politics of growth management

As counties and cities make their way through growth management planning and tackle the meaning of best available science, they’re charting new political territory as they go, Mackie said. Regional hearing boards, set up to enforce the process, will not issue advisory opinions as to whether a plan meets the intent of the law or not, he said. They will only issue an opinion if an opponent to the plan challenges it. In this way, opponents drive the opinions, he said.

“The Legislature has created a monster here because there’s no where you can go for guidance and there are very strong forces on both sides of this issue,” Mackey said. “And you, as managers, will have very difficult choices to make.”

The designation of urban growth areas can also be tricky, Mackie said.

Areas zoned for four or more homes per acre are considered urban, while rural areas need to average out at one home per 10 acres. Anything in between those numbers would require an explanation and defense of the planning, he said.

“A density of one (home) per acre, by definition, that would be determined to be sprawl,” he said.

“Before you start putting people out there, you need to know where you’re going to get the water, how you’re going to deal with the sewage, how you’re going to get them from one place to another,” he said.

Whidbey Island does not have a lot of commercially significant agriculture, Commissioner Mike Shelton noted in response to the density numbers. But, the island is full of small agriculture-based businesses that don’t require large amounts of acreage.

“We believe it to be a significant part of our rural character,” he said. “So we’re trying to protect people who have small agricultural businesses in areas that are not necessarily zoned for agriculture.”

Mackie warned his audience to set levels of service that are reasonable and attainable. He told the story of one community that couldn’t meet the time target for traffic turning into a growing section of the city. Because it took extra seconds to make a left hand turn, all growth in that section of town had to be put on hold for four years, until an overpass could be funded and built, he said.

He told the politicians that if it’s decided that a reasonable time to get from Clinton to Langley is 10 minutes “that’s a political decision. Then supplying the facilities and the infrastructure to make that possible, that’s a planning decision.”

Mackie offered water usage as another specific example of costly planning.

“Water will be the defining issue in more western Washington small towns than other other issue,” he predicted.

Be sure to know where it’s going to come from, how it’s going to be delivered and who’s going to pay for it, he said. A standard level of service might be 900 gallons per household per day, even though usage might reasonably be closer to 300 gallons per household daily, he said. To maintain the 900 gallon level would be a substantial, although unnecessary cost, he said.

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