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Public policy choices in land use - finding the best solutions that serve the public good.

By Donna J. Nickerson

We are enormously affected by a myriad of public policy decisions in our daily lives. How can we better understand and participate in these public choices as citizens? Value judgments alone are not reliable enough to sort through the complexities of most policy decisions - particularly land use decisions. How do we best present the complexity of these decisions to the public, and the decision makers, in order to achieve the common goal of best serving the public good?

A common framework that lays out the plausible consequences of a choice can help facilitate community discussion. It keeps us on the same page, with the same objectives in mind for the decision at hand. Successful public choice lies in linking the knowledge of what "is" with the process of democratic participation and debate to get to what "should be."

A Common Framework

Public policy choice seeks to find a kind of fairness to society as a whole. We need to know both the net benefit to society, and the probable distributional effects. Which sectors benefit and which ones are sacrificed by choosing one alternative over another? In other words, who wins and who loses?

A comprehensive net benefit analysis is a common tool. Results allow us to observe the benefits of each alternative to every socioeconomic group affected, and the total net benefits to the groups in aggregate.(1) In this way, decision makers can see the distributional effects of the choices - choices which are essential in the social and economic development of any community.

While policymaking is less structured than regulation, it allows more creativity in developing solutions that help us determine what "should be." For example, Thurston County Commissioners are currently reviewing two choices for rural rezoning in order to comply with the Growth Management Act (GMA). The minority proposal would rezone 39.66% of rural lands. The majority proposal would rezone 28%. The details of these proposalsareonline in the excellent staff report(2) to the Commissioners for their March 20, 2007 briefing.

The staff report provides a good first step, but staffers need to obtain more quantitative data before completing a comprehensive net benefit analysis. And the results of a comprehensive analysis would be needed in order to thoroughly discuss the equity trade-offs between each choice. However, for purposes of illustration, we can take some findings and apply them to sample criteria that influence the public good to show where each alternative is strong or weak in meeting specific criteria. Criteria could derive from among others, the Comprehensive Plan, and indicators including the recent defeat of I-933, which signaled a strong mandate for land use planning. We also have a unique natural heritage in South Sound that sustains important parts of our local economy. Preserving that heritage is an additional responsibility.

Again, this table is for illustration and looks only at five of the sample criteria. Results indicate that the minority proposal contributes more to quality of life than the majority proposal, but would negatively affect more rural landowners.

Example indices of equity and monetary revenue.
  Minority Proposal Majority Proposal
Quality of Life Factors ++ +
. Open Space   
. Public Health   
Natural Heritage Factors ++ +
. Ecosystem Functions   
. Puget Sound Water Quality   
. Shellfish Production   
. Sustainable Forestry   
Drinking Water Quality&Supply   
Total number of residents benefited   
Landowners downzoned - +
State Revenue (Short-term) - ++
County General Fund (Long-term) ++ -
"++" = entirely contributes "+" = partially contributes "-" = negatively contributes

Conversely, the majority proposal would negatively affect County funds. It allows more homes without a system for collecting sufficient fees for the new services that would be required. On the other hand, this proposal provides the State with more one-time construction tax revenue from the additional new homes.

Developing Solutions

We can see possibilities to develop a better alternative. For example, the minority proposal would satisfy more criteria than the majority proposal, and would therefore be a better alternative if not for the number of landowners downzoned.

However, many landowners want to keep lands working and would rather be compensated for downzoning than sell for development. Particularly for lands that provide important ecological services and therefore more public benefit criteria, the County could compensate these landowners by purchasing the development rights of their downzoned parcels.

Or, the County could make their existing Transferable Development Rights (TDR) program workable by exchanging the new upzoned rights for the loss of rights through downzoning. Lands are being upzoned in urban areas where the GMA is forcing higher densities. This has meant benefits or "windfalls" to the owners of such land, for which they are not required to pay.

The County has a timely opportunity to implement a TDR program that would improve equity. TDRs have worked well in Montgomery County, Maryland.(3) Seattle has used TDRs to help achieve affordable housing and historic preservation.(4)

To quantify the trade-offs of State revenue in the short term and County budget funds in the long term, Thurston County would need to conduct a cost-of-growth study. Westford, Massachusetts (5) conducted a cost-of-growth study and found that it is cheaper to buy land themselves than to allow it to be developed for residential use. Westford residents subsequently voted on a series of bonds to purchase thousands of acres for public parks. Residents say over and over "Better to buy it now, as it will cost us more in the long run if we don't and the land is developed."


A framework that allows both government and the public to gauge probable consequences of alternative policy choices against public benefit criteria gives transparency and organization to the debate. We collectively have the opportunity to help shape the future of South Sound, and no time is more important than now.

Donna Nickerson, a graduate of The Evergreen State College (B.S. Degree) and the University of Washington (M.M.A. Degree), is retired from a career of public service that spanned from Volunteer with the US Peace Corps to Coastal Management Officer of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. She and her husband have a small clam farm on Eld Inlet.

  1. Nickerson, D.J. (1999) "Trade-offs of mangrove area development in the Philippines.", Ecological Economics 28 (1999) pp 279-298.
  2. http://www.co.thurston.wa.us/permitting/gma
  3. a) www.montgomerycountymd.gov/Content/council/pdf/zta/2006/06-03.pdf b) Montgomergy County Planning Board. 2002. Meeting minutes of July 25, 2002. http://www.mcmncppc. org/board/meetings_archive/02_meeting_archive/agenda_072502/item1_072502.pdf )
  4. http://www.cityofseattle.net/housing/2001/TDR-BonusPrograms-2001.htm)
  5. Analysis Paper #2: The Costs of Growth. In: Analysis Papers for the Westford Master Plan. June 6, 1994. Prepared by The Westford Master Plan Committee with consulting assistance from the LandUse Collaborative. Westford, Massachusetts #}

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