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

Local News : Sunday, May 17, 1998

Front Porch Forum: Growth -- enough already?

by Eric Pryne
Seattle Times staff reporter

Nine hundred thousand more people. Eight Bellevues. One new person for every three here now.

That's how much demographers forecast the population of King, Snohomish and Pierce counties will grow by 2020.

Nine hundred thousand more people, shoehorned into three counties where afternoon rush-hour speeds average 26 miles an hour. Where average home costs are on their way to tripling since 1981.

Devising ways to somehow accommodate even more people now consumes much of the region's civic energy and capital. The Growth Management Act aims to get us living and working closer together. A $4 billion transit plan hopes to get some of us out of our cars.

But all this planning for population growth rests on one big set of assumptions: that it's going to happen. We can't stop it or slow it down. Even if we could, we wouldn't want to because there's too much to gain.

But a lot of people seem to no longer buy those assumptions. They are questioning not only whether growth is inevitable, but whether it's worth the trouble it causes.

Doubts bubbled up repeatedly when The Seattle Times and its Front Porch Forum partners last year brought citizens together to talk about the future.

In June, 1,500 people gathered over pizza in hundreds of homes to discuss the region and what they'd most like to change about it. One of the most frequent responses: Stop growth.

A majority of those responding to a regionwide poll later in the summer said growth had made the region a less desirable place to live. More than two-thirds said they expected growth would make it even less desirable over the next 10 to 20 years.

When they were asked to name the top threat to the region's quality of life, overpopulation topped the list.

Last fall, 97 citizen "jurors" participated in a Front Porch Forum mock trial of the region's planning for its future. Many expressed profound misgivings about growth. They said they didn't see themselves or their children benefiting from the region's booming economy. For them, growth meant only higher housing prices, nightmarish commutes, sprawl and schlock.

"We exceeded the capabilities of our natural resources and our infrastructure long ago," said retired Boeing engineer Ron Ellison. "That's the time to hang out the `lot full' sign on the gates of Seattle."

During the trial, the jurors were told repeatedly by growth experts and elected officials that growth was inevitable, and that we could only try to reduce its more troublesome aspects.

One-third of the jurors didn't buy that point of view when they were surveyed later. Half believed we could have a strong economy without encouraging new companies or new people to move here.

In some corners of the Northwest the idea of slowing or stopping growth is going beyond talk:

-- In fast-growing Issaquah, voters in February rejected a $53-million bond issue to build new schools the district said would be needed in the near future. Critics complained taxpayers were being asked to subsidize growth.

If growth weren't subsidized, some opponents of the bond issue said, perhaps there wouldn't be as much of it.

-- In booming Redmond, home of Microsoft, the City Council last December imposed a yearlong moratorium on some commercial development. That came after a consultant told the city that it might have to raise taxes or cut services as soon as 2000 to avoid a budget deficit, because growth wouldn't generate enough tax revenue to cover its costs.

"We've allowed (growth) to happen too fast," says Mayor Rosemarie Ives. "I think it's appropriate for people to say, `Time out.' "

-- In Thurston County, another place with swelling population, an informal organization called the Carnegie Group is prodding regional planners and elected officials to take an unblinking look at whether growth pays its own way.

"We've been conditioned to believe growth is good, . . ." the group's literature says. "But like all excesses, growth has become the problem instead of the solution."

-- In Oregon, birthplace of growth management, 700 attended a conference last fall on strategies for stopping growth. Now the organizers, who include some of the state's best-known environmentalists, are talking about forming an ongoing group to work toward that goal. They say accommodating growth more gracefully just doesn't go far enough.

Are these isolated eruptions, or signals of a broader shift? It may be too soon to say. But the evidence does suggest that many citizens now question the basic assumptions of the region's growth policy.

The Front Porch Forum - a partnership with KCTS Television and KPLU and KUOW public radio - was founded on the premise that many citizens no longer feel connected to public policy or civic life, and that the news media might be able to help bridge that gap.

So the Forum plans to spend the next few months exploring our longstanding assumptions about growth - whether slowing or stopping it is possible, and whether it would be wise.

The intent isn't to take sides on these questions, just provide information and provoke discussion.

The jurors in last fall's mock trial were asked to list possible cures for Puget Sound's growing pains. One group suggested a dialogue between civic leaders and citizens on population growth.

Do we want it? If so, how much? If limiting growth appeals to us, how do we control it and still maintain a healthy economy?

The group's members weren't necessarily anti-growth, said Carol Knight-Wallace of Tacoma, their spokeswoman: "I think people just felt like they hadn't really had the opportunity to talk about this."

The Front Porch Forum hopes to provide that opportunity in the weeks ahead.

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