mcmansion_wellurban_FlickrSprawl is a scourge on so many fronts. It paves over evergreen forests and productive farmlands. It sends expensive asphalt highways snaking into rural areas. It creates long, polluting commutes. And it threatens to undermine efforts to cleanup filthy stormwater runoff by pocking the landscape far and wide with impervious surfaces.

Some great stories recently published in Crosscut by Robert McClure of Investigate West, an independent journalism nonprofit group, tackle the challenging issue of regulating sprawl. His articles shine a light on two really important ways that Washington’s land-use rules make it extra tough to get on top of the region’s stormwater problems:

  1. Washington allows for a new development to be built on land put off limits by the Growth Management Act, provided even rough plans for the project predate the GMA restrictions. The projects are grandfathered in or “vested” under the outdated rules.
  2. Some developers and local governments are arguing that these vesting rules apply not only to the Growth Management Act, but allow for projects to meet older, weaker stormwater regulations as well.

This spells trouble. Top stormwater scientists say that when as little as 10 percent of a watershed is covered by impervious surfaces such as roads and rooftops, streams and wildlife begin to suffer. And McClure reports:

From 1998 to 2008, more than 40,000 homes were built outside areas designated for urban growth in King, Pierce, Snohomish, and Kitsap counties, the (Puget Sound Regional Council’s) tracking of building permits indicates.

Here’s a quick rundown of what the series reveals.

Day one: The vesting mess

First, “Odd provision in state law severely hampers growth management” explains the history, whys, and hows of the vesting policy for land-use code. The idea was to give developers certainty that once they embarked on a project, the regulations wouldn’t change. However, a developer must barely get a project underway before he’s able to lock in more lax regulations. A builder must simply file a preliminary plan the day before a new rule goes into a effect and he’s golden. McClure reports:

Only a few states, including Texas, California, and Colorado, have adopted statutes similar to Washington’s in which filing an application for development secures building rights under existing codes and regulations.

This story was paired with “State board limits developers’ ability to avoid stormwater restrictions”. The article tracks a court case in which:

Clark County and the Building Industry Association of Clark County contend stormwater-control rules adopted by the county in April of 2009 don’t apply to developments approved earlier. The county and the builders contend that stormwater-control regulations are subject to vesting—that is, that they lock in as soon as the builder drops off development plans at city hall.

Day two: The extent of the sprawl

The second day of the series leads with “Leniency in act: Sprawl dots the state“, which highlights 17 of the most egregious cases of sprawl that was permitted due to the state’s curious vesting provision. One example:

Pierce County’s comprehensive plan was about to go into effect when a Kirkland developer filed paperwork to build 350 homes on 300 acres right at the base of the Cascade foothills, far past where the incoming growth plan would allow that kind of density.

The series wraps up with “How far will we sprawl? In WA, no one knows”. The article tackles the tricky task of quantifying the effect of the state’s permissive land-use rules. McClure reports the fraction of homes approved for construction in recent years that were located outside the urban-growth areas.

smaller sprawl_Mark Strozier_Flickr

  • In Kitsap one-third of the homes approved in 2008 were outside areas designated for urban development. (He notes that half the new homes approved in Kitsap in the decade before that were outside the urban areas.)
  • In Snohomish one in seven new homes were outside the urban-growth area
  • In Pierce one in four homes were outside the urban-growth area
  • In King less than 4 percent were outside its urban growth boundaries

Remember, these are homes being built on land prioritized for greater protection for the good of us all, but the protection came after a builder staked his claim.

Who’s the Evergreen State?

While Washington goes merrily sprawling away, Oregon is having heated debates and making hard choices about how and where to put its growth. The state’s newspapers regularly publish articles about controlling development while the topic gets close to no attention in Washington, save these recent stories. Why is that? It might be that sprawl has been considered an important issue for much longer in Oregon. The state approved its land-use planning goals back in 1973; Washington got around to adopting its Growth Management Act in 1990 and 1991.

Washington based it’s rules on Oregon’s, but provided much more lax enforcement. Instead of having a state agency approving the growth decisions of the cities and counties, it delegated that responsibility to local residents.

And even when Washington’s cities and counties do try to rein in sprawl, the vesting rules addressed in McClure’s series show how those good intentions can be undone. If Washington wants to live up to its motto and really save Puget Sound and other waterways, leaders and residents are going to have to take a hard look at where and how the state grows.


McMansion photo from Flickr user wellurban used under the Creative Commons license. Sprawl photo from Flickr user Mark Strozier used under the Creative Commons license.