A funny thing happened on the way to regulatory reform.

The Seattle City Council recently passed regulatory reforms to ease restrictions on land use to create jobs. I was an enthusiastic supporter, erroneously credited with being “in charge of the secret negotiations to bring forth the proposals.” I’m thankful to all the people who actually did work to get it passed. But, unfortunately, the measures to relax requirements under the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) are almost canceled out by State mandated growth targets and new requirements for parking in areas exempted from SEPA.

The intention of SEPA when it was passed in 1971 was to disclose and mitigate environmental impacts from new development. The State stepped in because local governments were allowing projects to go forward without enough review. The new legislation was intended to be stronger than local laws. However, over the years, local ordinances passed by local governments afforded equal or better protection than SEPA. In many cases all that was left was a redundant and time-consuming SEPA process. The regulatory reform package was intended to eliminate that redundancy, saving time, money, and creating jobs.

That was the plan. But a closer look reveals that the package may have been two steps forward, a press conference, and then a step and a half backward. The plan was always touted as being a rather modest relaxation of rules and regulations, but it may be even more modest than previously thought.

More below the jump.

Regulatory Reform, SEPA, and Setting Limits on Growth

State law allows exemptions from SEPA requirements when local ordinances and rules match the State’s requirements. But that exemption is tied to State growth targets, or what would be better called growth limits, set by central planners at the Office of Financial Management (OFM).

The problem with these targets is that they treat growth as if new people moving into the region were radioactive waste or garbage, something nobody really wants but might be willing to accept if forced. The number crunchers at OFM put on their green eye shades and determine how much growth local jurisdictions can “take,” setting, in effect, a maximum limit for new people and jobs.

Under state law, local jurisdictions can grant exemptions to SEPA only in areas that are below their growth target, so, ironically, whenever we’re successful as a city encouraging growth to happen with less regulation, the growth targets the old SEPA rules kick back in. More people and jobs means we have to go back to the old way of doing things that limited job creation in the first place.

Can they take it?: Neighborhoods with exemptions.
We’re not gonna take it!:Neighborhoods exempt from the exemptions.

Regulatory Reform, Parking, and Growth Targets

Something strange also happens with parking minimums required of developers under the new package. It’s true that in some areas under the regulatory reform package, parking requirements are relaxed like other aspects of SEPA. However, in those areas, there are new parking and traffic mitigation requirements not previously required by state law. The new requirements add an entirely new, and arguably, onerous burden to projects that are already SEPA exempt.  The City in passing regulatory reform actually added a new regulatory requirement for those projects that are SEPA exempt.

That means in a neighborhood like Roosevelt that hasn’t reached growth limits yet, the City can impose requirements to build parking where no requirement existed before under SEPA. The regulatory reform legislation exempts parking requirements with one hand, but allows the City to impose more parking for Type I and use decisions with the other hand. A decision to require mitigation of parking impacts are appealable only to Superior Court, so if a project wants to avoid building more parking they’ll fight the City—and NIMBYs—in court.

One Foot on the Gas, One Foot on the Brake

I hate to use an automotive analogy here, but Seattle is driving down the road toward sustainability with one foot on the brake and one foot on the gas; the harder one foot goes down on getting us to our goal, the harder the other one pushes down on being sure we keep imposing rules that limit us from getting there.

Growth targets are absurd and should be disconnected from exemptions to SEPA. I hope that Futurewise, the Association of Washington Cities, and other progressive groups will advocate for this and from the bizarre limits being imposed, de facto, by state planners on the benefits from growth, including limits on new jobs.

At the city level we ought to repeal the new requirements imposed in the recently passed regulatory reform package. The parking reforms should be real reforms. New development in transit areas like Roosevelt shouldn’t have to build any more parking than what the market demands—no matter what neighbors there or anywhere else say. If new homeowners and tenants don’t want parking, why build it? All parking does is add costs to projects, costs that get passed on to new people moving into Seattle.

Sadly, efforts to loosen regulation haven’t succeeded. This is part of what I am starting to call the Seattle Problem: the tendency to push for good things while at the same time regulating good things. It’s time to stop treating growth like a disease and welcome new people to our region and the money and jobs they bring with them; then we’ll get where we say we want to go, a livable, affordable, and sustainable Seattle.

33 Replies to “The Seattle Problem: Two Steps Forward, Two Steps Back”

    1. After two decades of relatively unplanned sprawling growth. Yes.

      Also, I’m confused why you want the region to be more affordable. It seems that the regions that have become more affordable over the past two decades are the ones that you probably wouldn’t want to live in (Detroit comes to mind).

      1. With GMA, it’s hardly sprawling.

        As far as planning, the fact that not a single new major highway was built in the region during a 60 percent increase in population, I’d say, yes, a lack of planning.

      2. There is no reason that affordability can’t be coupled with quality of life. But to do that requires more than simply “free market” mechanisms.

        Part of the reason exurbs exist is as a pressure release valve on the inevitable skyrocket of housing prices in high demand dense areas.

        I’m disturbed by Roger’s description of a state OFM mandating numerical targets for growth that take those decisions away from local control. At the same time, if we as a society at the state level want to control where growth happens e.g. reduce sprawl and protect sensitive environmental features such as wetlands and forests, then some form of oversight is needed. Markets don’t provide that control because markets don’t care about such niceties.

        It also follows that if the State has to expend its resources
        to build roads and infrastructure to support population growth, then it makes the most sense to concentrate those people where infrastructure already exists. The question should not necessarily be removing all constraints but what is the political mechanism by which such decisions are made as to where growth should occur.

      3. Without the GMA, infill development would not be taking place and critical mass around urban centres would faulter. The GMA is doing an important job. Is it perfect? No. Of course not, becuase it was a 1990s answer (read as 1970s) to planning issues of a 21st Century world. The GMA needs to be fully revamped, much like SEPA, and other planning programmes and practices. Heck, we should scap SEPA/NEPA for critically important environmental areas for an SEA…The analysis done is wholly inadequate.

      4. As an example of how the GMA is affecting development:

        State board stays its ruling that Orton Junction plan skirts law

        Imperfect, yes. Better than nothing, absolutely. A while back there was mention of development swallowing up the farmland in the agriburbs. A little digging turned up a study the State had done on this (sorry, didn’t save the link). The upshot is that most of the land state wide (~70%) has a higher value use than farmland. In King County that number is more like 99%. The only long term solution is money to buy the development rights. Think what a difference a .5% chunk of the sales tax could do in containing sprawl if spent on that instead of heavy rail and P&R lots serving the hinterlands.

      5. I still feel we’re talking in circles.

        If you have GMA, then you’ve already defined what areas are for growth and what areas are for preservation.

        If you have GMA, and then people legally move into these areas — suddenly slapping their wrists and saying “oh, why did you do that!” seems a bit crazy to me.

        With GMA we’ve established the game board. If these areas were defined 20 years ago, then that’s when the planning should have occurred for new highways, new transit corridors, new rail — but from what I can tell, absolutely no infrastructure planning in the general western part of Washington occurred.

      6. John Bailo: “With GMA we’ve established the game board. If these areas were defined 20 years ago, then that’s when the planning should have occurred for new highways, new transit corridors, new rail — but from what I can tell, absolutely no infrastructure planning in the general western part of Washington occurred.”

        What’s this? http://psrc.org/growth/vision2040

      7. John, every time you say that, I ask (and don’t get an answer):

        Where would you build new highways where they 1) would do any good, and 2) would not destroy existing communities?

      8. I would have built 605, a second bypass around Seattle. Turned 2 and East Valley into interstates. I would turn 125 into a highway and build a “beltway” around the west coast of Seattle. Benson to Kent Kangley all the way to Black Diamond and then on to Tacoma would be a highway. I90 needs a year round “chunnel”…

  1. The growth targets are a floor, not a ceiling. It’s the minimum capacity (+20% over 20 years), that the region, counties & cities must plan for — and often the jurisdictions pick higher numbers than required. The interaction between SEPA & the growth targets may have a countervailing effect, but that’s not the fault of the growth targets. I’m also skeptical that it’d have a tremendous effect.

    1. Brock,

      While they are intended as a floor they end up functioning as a ceiling. How many times have we heard local neighborhoods saying we’ve taken enough growth and then they cite the growth targets.

      And State law limits the exemption to SEPA to places that have not hit their target, meaning, in this case, they really do act as a stop to more good things happening.

      If it wouldn’t have a tremendous effect, then let’s [Bill Lumburgh voice] go ahead and just repeal all that crap in subsection b. Yeah[/Bill Lumburgh voice].

      1. I’m all in favor of getting rid of the neighborhood targets in the city comp plan. I’m also in favor of the City of Seattle planning for a larger population than allocated it under the CPPs.

        I still take issue with the general idea that the M.O. of population targets is that they act like ceiling. Counties almost always plan for a high-end of the OFM projects then add a 20% “market factor,” and sometimes even add more. Then that gets allocated down to the cities. Of course, in a place like Clark County, an undue amount goes to the rural area, not the cities.

  2. Since the late 80’s Seattle has always been ranked near the top in categories where cities like to be near the top. Seattle didn’t get there by having a small cadre of planners, reformers and developers dictating policy to create the utopia of their dreams. Experience would tell one that the “Seattle Process” has worked well in the past and that as well meaning as some reformers might be, their vision is not necessarily Seattle’s vision.

    1. Really?

      The fastest increase in traffic congestion, the fastest growth in housing cost as a percentage of household income, the biggest structural deficit in civic revenue (despite conspicuous wealth and consumption), and the most negligible increase in transit mobility are “categories where cities like to be near the top”!?

      Okay, whatever you say!

      1. Seattle also has the only 24/7/365 transit service in the Pacific Northwest (better than Portland).

        Not everyone has to (or wants to) live in a McMansion on a one-acre lot while making single-occupant-SUV trips on two-lane former farm-to-market roads.

      2. Transit service (relying on increasingly congested roads, and not nearly keeping up with increases in demand) has only gotten worse in this city in the six years I’ve lived here. And doubled in price. And sucked more regressive sales taxes from the working poor.

        Seattle is dropping on quality-of-life indices, Glenn. But way to be rosy about unsustainable practices!

      3. (W)hat 24-hour service are you referring to?
        Owl service.

        “(T)he Pacific Northwest” is a remarkably small peer comparison group.
        However we are a very large geographic area.

    2. Seattle has a lot of things going for it. That’s why it shows up so high in these surveys. Things look different from the inside than from the outside. Most of these studies don’t look at transit. (They look at the natural landscape, college education, high-pedestrian districts, percentage of millionaires, etc.) But even those that do, consistently rate us between #7 and #15 in the country. We see we’re far behind #1-5 and European/Canadian countries, and that bothers us immensely. But things could be worse, much worse. (Cough, Atlanta, Raleigh, Columbus.)

      As to why things are going so well, it mostly comes down to cultural attitudes, our “liberal” government, the accidental fact of where certain innovators were born, and the network effect that these all produce. It has been argued that the cultural attitudes are ultimately based on geography: that the consistently moderate temperature and adequate water supply make people more willing to see nature as a friend rather than an enemy, and ourselves as part of nature’s ecosystem rather than as masters of nature. This thinking influenced the Indians and also the settlers and the modern environmental movement.

      The paradox in Glenn’s assertion is that our development was not caused by a small cadre of planner/reformer/developer dictators, yet the cultural attitudes allowed the government to be generally liberal (compared to the US average), and that clearly was a factor in our achievements.

      As to whether the “Seattle process” is good or bad, I don’t fully know. It’s exasperating when nothing gets done because the opposing factions are so equally powerful they cancel each other out. On the other hand, as the surveys show, we have muddled through somewhat successfully.

      1. I can agree with all of that but would add that it is only exasperating when what you want fails to come to fruition quickly.

  3. Could you ease up on the flowery language and metaphors and be more specific about this point?: “The City in passing regulatory reform actually added a new regulatory requirement for those projects that are SEPA exempt…The regulatory reform legislation exempts parking requirements with one hand, but allows the City to impose more parking for Type I and use decisions with the other hand.” I’m still confused. Thanks!

Comments are closed.