Growth management ruling exposes Washington’s east/west divide


Author: Brian T. Hodges

Washington’s Growth Management Act (GMA) envisions a scheme where every city and county, in every nook and cranny of the state, adopts land use regulations responsive to a host of general societal interests  (e.g, affordable housing, preserving property rights, protecting rural lands from urban development, protecting the environment, promoting natural resources industries, etc.).  Visionary?  Maybe … to some. 

You see, the GMA was the result of deeply divided interests, and its various planning goals and requirements were, as noted by prominent scholars Settle and Gavigan, “shaped or deformed . . by last-gasp political compromises, contain unresolved internal inconsistencies, politically necessary vague language, and significant gaps.”  So, while a requirement like preserving rural lands from urban encroachment may be a top priority in a heavily populated Puget Sound community, it makes little sense in the sparsely populated counties of Eastern Washington.

In the past, the Washington Supreme Court bridged this divide by recognizing that the legislature wrote no priorities into the Act’s planning goals.  One community may value the affordable housing goal over the anti-urban sprawl goal.  Another may value economic development over public transportation.  According to early decisions, prioritization of planning goals was an issue vested in local communities that was subject to broad discretion.  This allowed Eastern Washington communities to prioritize their land use policies differently than the metropolises of Western Washington.  Yesterday, however, the state Supreme Court issued its decision in Kittitas County v. E. Washington Growth Management Hearings Board, threatening the very flexibility that has allowed both east and west to engage in planning responsive the needs of each community. 

In Kittitas County, environmentalists (represented by Seattle-based interests) and an Olympia-based administrative agency challenged the County’s adoption of an updated Comprehensive Plan, arguing that it did not do enough to protect the county’s rural and agricultural lands from the risk of urban sprawl.  To embrace this argument, you have to suspend your grasp on reality. Kittitas County is sparsely populated made up mostly of old mining towns, unproductive desert, cattle ranches, and farms on its eastern edge.  The County does not have an urban sprawl problem.  In fact, it has quite the opposite problem – it needs development and the jobs that go with it.

Environmentalists and bureaucrats argued that the GMA imposes rigid and unbending standards requiring absolute preservation of rural and agricultural lands on every city and county.  This, according to the environmentalists and bureaucrats, meant that the county could not even allow for “urban” development that would lead to growth in nonagricultural businesses as exceptions to their land use rules.   In a 6-3 ruling, a majority of the Supreme Court endorsed this argument and held that a comprehensive plan that allows such uses violates the state’s planning imperatives.

Justice Chambers’ dissent illuminates the "big picture" problem with the majority’s inflexible approach to growth management.  In a fictional dialogue between Madge, Fred, and Harry – three long-time county residents – Justice Chambers gives voice to the very different concerns of eastern Washington.  Here is some choice dialogue:

“If they don't think the county is rural enough, then they've never laid eyes on it,” declared Fred.
“Pin brains,” added Madge.
“No, they're not pin brains.  They just believe that planning for the future is a good idea. You never know when we're gonna have a land rush.”
“Yeah right, ‘land rush,’” Madge snorts.

“Well,” Harry continues, “as I understand it, the state legislature had a good idea to push each county to develop its own plan. ….  The idea was to plan from the bottom up.  The rub is that the bottom up planning is administered from the top down.”

Madge persists, “I still think they are pin brains if they think Kittitas County isn’t rural enough. What this county needs is a few more jobs.”

“I think they mean well, they want each county to do its own planning but then they want to treat all counties equal, so they set up uniform standards and procedures for planning and documentation that don’t always make a lot of sense when counties are so different.  They say they don’t want cookie cutter plans but all the plans must fit through the same cookie cutters.  I think the real problem is they passed laws, then judges sometimes interpret those laws with one finger on the words of the law and one finger in the dictionary, and the rule of law takes over the rule of reason.”

Fred shakes his head, “So the good idea got lost in the details.”

“Yep,” Harry says, nodding to his coffee cup, “The devil is in the details.”

Ultimately, Justice Chambers criticizes the type of centralized and uniform planning that the majority decision envisions as stifling creative planning and coercing conformity.

Justice James Johnson and Justice Pro Tem Richard Sanders also dissented.

The Yakima Herald published an article on the decision here.