New Special Report: The Growth Management Act at 25 Years

By: Mary Strow
12:00 am
July 6, 2016

Today we're releasing our Special Report on the Growth Management Act (GMA), Washington's comprehensive land-use law, which was fully enacted 25 years ago.

Our report covers the GMA's history and chief components, focuses specifically on how the GMA has worked in two counties, Snohomish and Spokane, and offers recommendations for improving the act.

In addition to our usual thorough research, we interviewed a variety of people who've had, and continue to have, experience with GMA – those who largely support the act, and those who are critical of it.

Excerpts from our Executive Summary:

The Growth Management Act (GMA) emerged from concerns about lack of consistency and coordination in land-use planning, uncontrolled and inefficient growth, and environmental damage. 

It has been marked by an ambitious set of goals, often in seeming conflict with each other, unfulfilled promises by the state to financially aid local governments, and perhaps a too-idealistic notion of the potential of centralized planning.

GMA’s principal feature was to limit urban growth within defined areas in order to contain development and prevent sprawl. Under the law, the state’s population and economic projections determine the amount and type of housing and jobs to be planned for in a 20-year time horizon.

Today, more than 60 percent of a growing state populace still choose to live in detached, single-family housing, depleting current land inventories. GMA’s rigid boundaries are heading for a collision with other policy goals that are rising in priority, including housing affordability, economic disparities, and the need for new schools.

GMA planning mandates “concurrency,” which means  that infrastructure, including roads and bridges, must keep up with growth. But congested roads, principally in Western Washington, threaten to cripple the mobility which is vital to economic progress. The recently passed transportation package will, at best, slow our march toward gridlock.

Another defining feature of GMA was the designation and protection of environmentally critical areas. This local complement to federal laws has prevented the development of environmentally sensitive areas, but ecosystems continue to be degraded by habitat loss. The Voluntary Stewardship Program offers a new approach to protecting critical areas, through cooperation, that is focused on actual outcomes rather than bureaucratic rules and process. 

Trading verifiable improvements in protection of critical areas for needed flexibility in setting urban growth boundaries may be one pathway to successfully reform GMA that will enhance, rather than jeopardize, its effectiveness. Prioritizing state dollars to aid local governments in planning, and giving local governments more help with expensive traffic and utility problems, could foster economic growth and contribute to the high quality of life that has historically defined our region.  

Click here to read the full report.

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Tags: GMA , Growth Management Act , land use , state government