Plugging Loopholes

Democrats take aim at Washington’s developer-friendly vesting law

Washington state has a quirk that developers love, but land-use advocates hate: As soon as a developer’s predevelopment paperwork is in, their property is “vested.” No matter what happens to the zoning of the property afterward, that development is unaffected.

“Washington has one of the strongest and best vesting laws in the country,” says Michael Cathcart, government affairs director for the Spokane Home Builders Association.

In 2013, Spokane County became an object lesson in what that means for managing growth: Last year, Spokane County expanded its Urban Growth Area — the region where high-density development can be built — but a few months later, the Growth Management Hearings Board struck down the expansion, finding the county had run afoul of public participation requirements.

For vast quantities of land, the reversal hardly mattered. About 640 lots, across six different properties, had already vested. Ultimately, land-use advocates saw it as a clear way for developers to get around requirements of the Growth Management Act. “This is such a giant, gaping wound in the growth management act,” says the Center for Justice’s Rick Eichstaedt.

Asked about the loophole last year, County Commissioner Todd Mielke pushed back, arguing in the Inlander, “If you really don’t like the vesting process, change the law.” 

That’s exactly what Spokane Reps. Timm Ormsby and Marcus Riccelli are trying to do. “This is at least my second time dealing with my frustration over what happens under current law,” Ormsby says. “This is not uncharted territory.”

They’ve introduced legislation to prevent vesting in new areas until 60 days have passed after the expansion of an Urban Growth Area. And if there’s a challenge to expansion before the Growth Management Hearings Board, properties wouldn’t be able to vest until the board gave the county a green light.

Simultaneously, from the west side of the state, Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, has put forward another bill that would have an even more dramatic effect, allowing zoning to be changed even for vested properties if the Growth Management Hearings Board strikes down a UGA expansion entirely.

It would allow the state “to put the genie back in the bottle,” Fitzgibbon says.

Even if either bill gets out of committee, the opposition that sponsors face from developer groups will be fierce.

The entire point of vesting, Cathcart says, is to give property owners some assurance that it’s safe to make investments. He worries that new restrictions could cripple investors.

“It’s just going to be driving uncertainty. It will just hurt the property owner. Now suddenly, they’ll have to be left waiting for months or years or more to get their investment off the ground,” Cathcart says. “They’re always trying to make this out to be about big, bad developers… It’s not just the developers that are going to be hurt, it’s the individual property owners that are going to be hurt.”

Ormsby dismisses such criticisms, arguing his bill would, at most, delay development by eight months. He and his allies don’t have much time more to make such arguments: The cutoff for getting most non-budgetary bills through committee is this Friday. ♦