School-siting bill clears state House, heads to governor's desk

Legislation long sought by overcrowded school districts to grant flexibility for building new schools cleared its final legislative hurdle this week. The state House Tuesday approved changes made by the Senate last week to House Bill (or as it's now known as, Engrossed Substitute House Bill) 1017, which allows school districts - in some circumstances - to build schools outside of the state Growth Management Act's (GMA) mandated "urban growth areas."

As we've written previously, some school districts, facing an influx of new students and/or new state requirements for smaller class sizes and expanded curricula, are bumping up against the state's strict land-use regulations and cannot find adequate affordable space. This bill would give them flexibility to build a school in a "rural" area if they cannot find appropriate land in the "urban" area (as many school officials have testified, the GMA's designations of "urban" and "rural" can be indiscriminate).

Speaking in favor of the bill, Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon (D-Burien), the chairman of the House Environment Committee, called the legislation

a bill to facilitate the construction of new schools in our state. And the Senate made some changes to make sure that this process that we set up for schools to be built in rural areas works for all the districts that are looking at this option. The bill still requires that the districts first look in an urban area if they’re serving urban students and if they don’t find available land there, there’s a slightly eased path for those who choose to site a school near an urban area to serve urban students while actually siting the school in a rural area.

The official Bill Report includes these summary points:

  • Provides that the Growth Management Act (GMA) does not prohibit a county planning fully under the GMA from authorizing the extension of public facilities and utilities to serve a school sited in a rural area under certain conditions, including, among others, that the county and any affected cities agree with the siting, that any public facility or utility that is extended beyond the urban growth area to serve the school is limited in the number of other properties that it may serve, and that any impacts associated with the siting of the school are mitigated as required by the State Environmental Policy Act.
  • Permits a public facility or utility extended beyond the urban growth area in order to serve a school to also serve a property or properties in addition to the school, provided that the county and any affected cities agree with the request and provided that the property is located no further from the public facility or utility than the distance that, if the property were within the urban growth area, the property would be required to connect to the public facility or utility.
  • Permits a county to site in the rural area a school that serves students from an urban area, even where otherwise prohibited by a multicounty planning policy, under certain conditions, including, among others, that the county must have a population greater than 840,000 but less than 1,500,000. 
  • Requires amendment of any multicounty planning policy in which any county that sites a school in the rural area is a participant, at the next regularly scheduled update.
  • Requires, for any county that sites a school in the rural area and that is also a participant in a multicounty planning policy, that the school districts in such a county participate in the county's periodic comprehensive plan updates.
  • Modifies the GMA's definition of "rural governmental services" to include schools serving primarily rural students.
  • Modifies the GMA's definition of "urban governmental services" to include schools.

The bill now heads to Gov. Inslee for his approval (or disapproval). We'll keep you posted.

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