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Thurston County Land Use Is at a Crossroads

By Sandra Romero

When the Growth Management Act (GMA) passed in Washington State in 1991, a new opportunity was given to citizens who had not previously had a meaningful say on land use issues. The GMA gave citizens a voice in helping design their own patterns of development.

One of the forces behind the GMA was awareness that urban sprawl can be expensive (overtaxing limited public facilities), and destructive to rural resource lands.(1)

The GMA requires most counties in Washington to update their Comprehensive Land Use Plan every seven years. These plans are a community's vision of what it wants to be and how to get there. The Plan is the vision, but development regulations are the plan's how-tos. Development regulations are the controls placed on landuse activities. They cover such diverse areas as ordinances for zoning, and subdivision density. By making these updates, counties can better prepare for growing populations and expanding cities.

Thurston County's turn to update came in 2004. Because our Comp Plan had major flaws, the grass roots citizens' group Futurewise(2) appealed it to the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board. This Board's sole purpose is to determine whether local officials have met regional and statewide GMA objectives.

On July 20, 2005, the Board agreed with Futurewise and declared the ten year old Thurston Plan to be noncompliant with state law for four reasons:

  • The Plan zoned rural lands at urban densities - More than 21,000 rural acres are zoned at 1 housing unit per 2 acres or greater, equaling 9% of the County's rural land.
  • The Plan lacked a variety of rural densities - The remaining 91% of the rural lands are all designated at 1 housing unit per 5 acres but different parts of rural areas have different density needs.
  • The Plan minimally protected farmland - Out of the 74,442 acres of working farms in 2002, Thurston County has only designated 14,000 acres (18.8%) of farmland to protect.(3)
  • The Plan had excessively large urban growth areas - The urban growth areas (UGAs) are 71% larger than necessary to accommodate the county's population target. Each county and city must plan for a 20-year population growth based on figures supplied by the Office of Financial Management. These boundaries can be reviewed at least every ten years based on updated 20 year population projections. -}

    This non-compliance created legal issues. Based on legal advice from the County's Attorney, the County challenged the Growth Board to the Court of Appeals. In Thurston County v. Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board, Division Two of the Court of Appeals issued a decision almost entirely in favor of the Growth Board's Decision.

    In perhaps the most important part of this case, the Court first agreed that the review and revise provisions for periodic updates allowed appeals of comprehensive plan provisions that the county did not amend, but that violated the GMA.

    The Court upheld the Board's determination that Thurston County's Urban Growth Areas were too large by 7,000 acres, that agricultural land must only be capable of use in commercial agricultural, rather than currently farmed, and that the County must provide for a variety of rural densities.

    The Court also rejected several procedural challenges, including the claim that Futurewise did not have standing to petition the Board unless they owned property in Thurston County. The Court only reversed the Board on two issues: that predominant parcel size rather than farm size may be used in calculating the commercial viability of a farm, and that Futurewise, rather than the County, had the burden of proving that innovative rural zoning techniques were ineffective at ensuring a variety of rural densities.

    The County has 30 days to file a petition for review to the Supreme Court. However, since the Supreme Court had previously transferred this case to the court of appeals, it is unlikely the Supreme Court will take review.

    While awaiting the appeal decision, the County has begun looking at alternatives to the rezoning of rural lands because they must correct the rural areas zoning violation by May 30, 2007. This is where the public has an opportunity to have their voices heard.

    The problem with the county's plan is that its designation of rural lands tends to produce development that chews up working farms and requires taxpayers to pay for roads, to extend sewers, and to provide police protection for these sprawling new developments.

    The Rural Rezone Choice

    For the last 18 months, as part of a process to determine how the county can comply with the Growth Board's decision, the Thurston County Planning Commissioners accepted public testimony at open houses and public meetings. More than 800 citizens participated in the process. This Herculean effort by our citizen volunteer Planning Commissioners originally produced three options for the Thurston County Commissioners to consider. However, the Commissioners preferred that the Planning Commission send them only one proposal.

    Due to strong public input, there are now two reports for the Thurston County Commissioners to consider. From these, they will determine what to send to the public hearing which is currently scheduled for April 30th.

    The two reports are summarized as follows:

    The Minority Report is the option that most closely mirrors what citizens requested during the 18-month public involvement process. This plan rezones 39.6% of the County's rural lands, and is the best option for protecting Thurston County's drinking water, rural character and habitat lands - all of which the public indicated as top priorities.

    Although this proposal gets us closer to complying with State law, there is still a question as to whether it goes far enough in achieving a variety of rural densities.

    For example, our neighbor to the south, Lewis County, has zoned 43% of their land at one dwelling unit per 20 acres and only 27% at one dwelling unit per five acres. The Growth Management Hearings Board concluded that Lewis County's zoning just barely met the standards of the Growth Management Act.

    The Majority Report was submitted to the County Commissioners as the Planning Commission's option for a rural rezone based on their interpretation of the hearings and the open houses. This plan rezones approximately 28% of the rural lands. It is the least representative of the public's top priorities for zoning, which included protecting Thurston County's rural character. There are some buffers for resource lands, but many believe that the plan lacks any meaningful protection of rural character or habitat lands.

    The Next Step

    Though the Majority Proposal is a small improvement over existing zoning, it is not the best choice for our families and communities. If growth is not centered in urban areas, we'll add to the time we spend in traffic and subtract time we spend with our families and friends. We will ultimately increase taxes - or decrease services - as we're forced to urbanize our rural infrastructure.

    We already see the effects of growing too fast. Some of our urban areas are looking for new sources of water to supplement their growth. They are now relying on conservation measures to increase the water available for current residents, while pressuring the Department of Ecology for new water rights.

    Furthermore, Thurston County's farmland is already under attack by encroaching sprawl; more intense development of rural areas will only add to this threat, making it even harder for farmers to continue farming.

    We encourage Thurston County to listen to the voices of the 65% of its voters who rejected Initiative 933 and as well to the opinions of the 800 citizens who attended and participated in the public process for the rezoning of Thurston County's rural lands. We can grow sensibly as well as sensitively if we let our voices be heard.

    Tell the commissioners that bare bones protections are not enough. Please join Livable Thurston(4) at the Board of County Commissioners' Public Hearing on the rural rezone on April 30th, at 6pm in the Worthington Center. Email mailto:livablethurston@yahoo.com

    Sandra Romero - Former 22nd District State Representative and former Chair of the Washington State House of Representatives Local Government Committee.

    1. Washington State Community, Trade and Economic Development, "A Short Course on Local Planning"
    2. Futurewise is a statewide public interest group that works to make cities great places to live while protecting communities, rural areas, and natural resources from irresponsible development.
    3. U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2002 Census of Agriculture Washington State and County Data Volume 1, Geographic Area Series Part 47 AC- 02-A-47 p. 242 (June 2004).
    4. Livable Thurston is a broad based group of citizens whose aim is to promote smart growth practices in Thurston County #}

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