Washington cities could soon be required to plan for climate change as they manage growth

click to enlarge Washington cities could soon be required to plan for climate change as they manage growth
Build in, not out, says the Growth Management Act.

For more than 30 years, Washington communities have been required to formally plan for the future, with the state's Growth Management Act directing local governments to limit sprawl and focus population growth within existing urban areas.

The act requires large cities and counties to update their plans every 10 years to guide decisions about new housing, transportation, public services like fire stations and water/sewer service, and more.

Now, environmental groups are pushing the state to require those plans to take climate change into account. House Bill 1181, which passed the House 57-41 and is now making its way through the state Senate, would add greenhouse gas reduction and climate resiliency elements to comprehensive plans.

Other state rules already require communities to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slash vehicle miles traveled in half by 2050. But it will also be key to plan for increasing drought, flooding and wildfires, and to prioritize investments in areas historically overburdened by pollution and health disparities, according to the 20-plus nonprofits in the Environmental Priorities Coalition, which is promoting the bill.

"There was always an understanding that redirecting growth into our existing cities and towns, and investing in infrastructure, rather than building new suburban development further and further out, had better climate impacts," says Alex Brennan, executive director of Futurewise, a nonprofit formed by those who originally pushed the Growth Management Act in 1990. "But in the subsequent decades, we've learned a lot more about the urgency and scale of the climate change problem that our world faces."

The legislation could require coastal communities to plan for sea level rise, while others could focus on preserving drinking water and limiting development in the wildland urban interface where homes are more at risk during fire season.

Not everyone is a fan of the proposal, with the Building Industry Association of Washington opposing the bill because of concerns it could further increase permitting costs (which already increased with energy and building code changes in recent years) and delay housing projects.

"We're trying to make housing more affordable and accessible, especially for first time homebuyers," association lobbyist Bill Stauffacher told lawmakers last week. "We ask you to set this one aside."

Still, some larger communities are already planning for climate impacts, and the structure of the bill that's been developed over the last three years would make it easier for communities of all sizes to meet compliance, with more collaboration with state agencies up front.

At the direction of the Legislature, the state Department of Commerce has already been working on a menu of options that would comply with the requirement, with model language that could be copied into plans. If a community includes enough items from Commerce's list, its plan will meet state standards and be shielded from appeals. Communities can also come up with their own strategies, but those need to get approval from Commerce to ensure they'll effectively reduce emissions and protect natural resources.

One of the best ways to address climate impacts is to build housing close to grocery stores, shops and places to work, enabling people to walk, bike or take transit, Brennan says.

"Transportation is our largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Washington state. A big part of that is because people live in communities where you need to drive to do any of your daily essential needs," Brennan says. "We're hoping this is a step toward designing communities where people will still drive for things, but for many needs you'll be able to get there with a short walk to the corner store or a bus somewhere nearby."

Some of the other changes that people could see in their communities might include things like renewable energy retrofits for existing buildings, a focus on building up urban tree canopy, and development of community centers that can provide shelter in times of extreme heat or other natural disasters. Other upgrades may not seem obviously connected to climate change and resiliency, as they'll provide other community benefits, says Dave Andersen, managing director at Commerce.

That could look like new parks that actually provide stormwater infiltration, or sidewalk and street design changes that are geared toward pedestrian safety but also reduce time spent in vehicles.

"I think a lot of the things you're going to see that have some real demonstrated ability to influence the per capita greenhouse gas reductions are also going to be generating a whole bunch of other benefits," Andersen says. ♦

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About The Author

Samantha Wohlfeil

Samantha Wohlfeil covers the environment, rural communities and cultural issues for the Inlander. Since joining the paper in 2017, she's reported how the weeks after getting out of prison can be deadly, how some terminally ill Eastern Washington patients have struggled to access lethal medication, and other sensitive...