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"What price growth...?"
Copyright 1998 The Seattle Times Company

Local News : Sunday, May 17, 1998

Slowing population growth: 5 possible strategies

I. Make Growth Pay The Full Cost Of Government Facilities And Services It Requires

Background: The Growth Management Act allows cities and counties to collect "impact fees" from developers to help cover the costs of new schools, roads, parks and fire protection to serve more people. Some local governments have chosen not to charge such fees; those that do usually charge only a fraction of what they could.

Would it really slow down population growth? Unclear. If developers passed their higher costs on to homebuyers and businesses, that could discourage some people and companies from moving here. Or they could just swallow hard and pay more.

Is it legal? The law doesn't permit impact fees to cover the entire cost of new facilities required to serve growth. But the law allows local governments to charge a lot more than they usually do now.

Arguments for: Current residents are subsidizing growth with their tax dollars, and it costs more than it used to because federal and state assistance has dried up. Growth should pay for itself. Higher impact fees won't necessarily mean higher home prices; builders will find other ways to cut costs, including paying less for land.

Arguments against: Higher fees will mean fewer houses built and higher costs, for our own children as well as newcomers. Companies will think twice about locating or expanding here if workers can't find affordable housing. New construction already generates plenty of tax dollars, but not enough of it goes to local governments responsible for building roads and schools to accommodate growth.

II. Eliminate Government Economic-development Subsidies And Incentives

Background: State and local governments try to attract employers and jobs by offering tax exemptions and deferrals, low-interest financing and other incentives. Some incentive programs are targeted at economically distressed parts of the state, but many apply statewide. If we dropped these programs, slow-growth supporters say, maybe fewer companies and people would move here.

Would it really slow down population growth? Probably at least some; population growth follows job growth, most economists say. But there's no clear information showing how much these incentive programs are responsible for this region's job growth, or whether companies would stay away without them, or whether the new jobs go to newcomers or to people who already live here.

Is it legal? Government created the economic-development programs; it could just as easily abolish them.

Arguments for: Government shouldn't promote growth at the same time it is struggling to manage it. Taxpayers shouldn't subsidize economic development that contributes to traffic congestion and overcrowded schools. Tax breaks and subsidized financing might make sense in areas hurting economically, but not here. Government money that's now spent on subsidies could be used for other programs, or returned to taxpayers.

Arguments against: The incentives and subsidies Washington offers pale in comparison with those offered by many other states. These programs help keep the state competitive in attracting and retaining family-wage jobs, but they are a minor factor in most companies' location decisions. In any case, the taxes generated by companies coming here more than cover the cost of incentive programs.

III. Cut International Immigration

Background: Immigration from other countries - mostly Asia - accounts for about one-sixth of the Puget Sound area's population growth this decade, and about one-third of King County's. The number of legal immigrants settling in the Seattle area each year nearly doubled between 1988 and 1996.

Would it really slow down population growth? Yes, but the heated national debate over immigration touches on all kinds of issues besides population, such as race. The Sierra Club's members, for instance, recently voted by a 60-40 ratio not to support cuts in immigration, in part because club leaders feared it would drive a wedge between environmentalists and people of color.

Is it legal? Yes. Congress has absolute authority to regulate who's admitted to the U.S.

Arguments for: International immigration is a major component of population growth, and is by far the easiest to control. Immigrants in general have lower incomes than other Americans; reducing immigration could reduce government social-service spending. Less competition from immigrants might mean more jobs for native-born Americans.

Arguments against: Cutting immigration smacks of racism and elitism. Most immigrants to the region are refugees or relatives of people already here; turning them away would be inhumane. Recent immigrants have made important contributions to the region's diversity, cultural richness and economic health. Regional businesses need immigrants to fill some jobs they can't find native-born Americans to do.

IV. Stop Building Roads

Background: The state Growth Management Act includes a provision called "concurrency." Cities and counties can't permit new development that pushes traffic congestion beyond certain levels unless there's a plan, and money, to improve the roads within six years. Concurrency problems already are holding up building permits in fast-growing parts of King County, such as the Sammamish Plateau, but governments are working to expand road capacity so development can resume. Some slow-growth advocates suggest we just not build those roads.

Would it really slow down population growth? Perhaps. Or development might simply shift to other parts of the region that have enough road capacity to accommodate it.

Is it legal? A court challenge would be likely if any government tried to use concurrency as the gatekeeper to growth.

Arguments for: It makes no sense to allow development in areas where roads already are full. Growth should go where there's infrastructure in place to handle it. Why raise taxes for new roads if it just opens the floodgates for more development?

Arguments against: Using concurrency to stop growth would mean accepting permanent gridlock and a lower quality of life for those already here. Concurrency is supposed to ensure orderly growth, not stop it. Restricting the supply of housing or jobs could have dire economic consequences.

V. Limit New Construction

Background: A number of smaller cities in other states, seeking to slow population growth, have imposed a lid on the number of new homes and apartments they permit each year. Others have limited new commercial development. Seattle's CAP initiative, approved by voters in 1989, limited downtown high-rise construction.

Would it really slow down population growth? Yes, if the limits are lower than the level of development that would occur otherwise.

Is it legal? Annual building-permit caps in Boulder, Colo., and Petaluma, Calif., have been upheld by federal courts.

Arguments for: Limiting annual growth eliminates the peaks in job and population growth that cause most stress. If there's more certainty about how much growth to expect each year, government can provide adequate roads, schools and other services in a more orderly way.

Arguments against: Government-imposed limits on the supply of housing or jobs could inflate costs and reduce economic opportunities. The region could become more exclusive, less diverse. New homes and jobs might just relocate in the next city or county, with no real change in the regional-growth picture.

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