In 1990, the Washington State Legislature passed the Growth Management Act (GMA), inflicting untold regulatory horrors on families and businesses. The GMA’s original purpose required the state and local governments to manage development by protecting land categorized as critical areas. These critical areas include wetlands, areas with a critical recharging effect on aquifers used for potable water, fish and wildlife habitat conservation areas, frequently flooded areas, and geologically hazardous areas.
To add even more bureaucratic layers, the GMA requires fast-growing cities and counties to develop their own “comprehensive plan to manage their population growth.” Those plans necessarily include enforcing environmental regulations on development.
Washington’s Democrats – always looking to add more regulations – are proposing more restrictions as part of updating the GMA during this legislative session. State Rep. Debra Lekanoff (D-La Conner) introduced HB 1117 at the very start of session after failing to pass similar legislation last year. Rep. Lekanoff’s bill imposes stringent salmon recovery responsibilities on local governments. Specifically, the bill requires local government to go beyond the current “no net loss” definition for ecological impact when planning for development. Rather, the new regulations would require that cities plan for and enforce development regulations that produce “net ecological gain.”
Rep. Lekanoff defines “net ecological gain” as a “standard for a development project, policy, plan, development regulation, or activity in which the impacts on the ecological integrity caused by the development are outweighed by measures taken consistent with the mitigation hierarchy to avoid and minimize the impacts, undertake site restoration, and to compensate for any remaining impacts in an amount sufficient for the gain to exceed the loss.” Simply put, developers can only improve their land in ways that the Democrats approve– and local governments must enforce the Democrats’ rules.
State Rep. Davina Duerr (D-Bothell) also introduced a bill – HB 1099 – that seeks to impose more climate change regulations on developments as part of GMA. Rep. Duerr’s bill would force local governments and developers to “support state greenhouse gas emissions reduction requirements, and state vehicle miles traveled goals, prepare for climate impact scenarios, foster resiliency to climate impacts and natural hazards, and protect environmental, economic, human health, and safety.” To be clear, the Democrats expect local governments and developers to achieve certain climate change goals that our state government has repeatedly failed to achieve under “green” Jay Inslee’s “leadership.”
As if two additional regulations to GMA are not enough, State Rep. Strom Peterson (D-Edmonds) is also pushing a bill that is making real progress. HB 1220 has passed the House Local Government House Appropriations committee and is awaiting a floor vote. The bill would propose to update GMA goals to include affordable housing planning and accommodations. It requires local governments to “address moderate, low, very low, and extremely low-income housing and racial disparate impacts in the housing element of the comprehensive plan.” Essentially, Democrats want to impose even more – and dangerously arbitrary – development requirements and restrictions on cities planning for growth. Ironically, though introduced in the name of “equity,” this bill would make the housing market across Washington State more unaffordable than ever.
Democrats are – of course – missing the incredible irony of their proposals – i.e., in seeking to enforce requirements on affordable housing, they are making housing more expensive than ever. Placing more regulations on development increases the cost of housing, pricing thousands more Washingtonians out of homes. Cost increases to cities – whether by forcing more planning requirements or otherwise – leads to cost increases to developers – whether by pricier permits or otherwise – which, ultimately, leads to cost increases to prospective home buyers.
It’s important to note that Democrats are pushing their new regulations after double-digit housing price hikes across Washington State in 2020. Medium home prices in Okanogan and Chelan increased by nearly 37 percent, while median home prices in Pacific County increased by 51 percent. A major reason behind increasing home prices is low inventory. In 2020, the number of for-sale listings across Northwest Multiple Listing Service (NWMLS) decreased by 42.8 percent. In other words, there are not enough homes for sale to meet buyer demand.
But Democrats – at the moment when demand is high and inventory never so low – want to make it even more difficult for cities and developers to increase inventory. The consequences of their bills are clear. Local governments will become more nervous than ever about granting permits in a timely manner to builders – and wait times will increase. The costs of building homes have already become more expensive for developers than ever – and prices for permits will increase, and longer wait times will also increase costs. Ultimately, cities and builders will be de-incentivized from building. Prices for homes will continue to climb, pricing more and more people out of homes.
The Democrats’ brilliant plan to raise prices on homes comes while many home builders are struggling to recover from the COVID-19 economic downturn. Simply put, many developers – especially small companies – are struggling to survive after months of forced shutdowns. Added regulations may put the nail in the coffin for many of these businesses.