Skip to content

Opposite Ends of I-90: The Role of the State

2013 July 17
by dan bertolet


The State of Washington’s Growth Management Act is an important local and regional planning tool, but beyond that, the State plays a minimal role in promoting smart growth. Over in Massachusetts, State lawmakers recently proposed legislation that provides good examples of how Washington State could do more.  The Boston Globe editorial board frames the issues well:*

Tidy downtown Winchester, just 20 minutes by train from North Station, should be a prime target for new development. According to one recent study, Greater Boston may need 19,000 new housing units every year just to keep pace with demand. And Winchester would welcome new residents: Town Manager Richard Howard says downtown restaurants and stores are eager to see new residential development on the city-owned lots, and that a planned upgrade to the commuter rail station next year could bring new vitality to downtown. The style of transit-oriented housing would also fall in line with the state’s environmental goals, which call for concentrating residential and commercial development near rail stations.

The obstacle, though, is the state’s dysfunctional ’70s-era zoning code, which sets the parameters for how individual cities and towns plan for development — and, in practice, sets up complex permitting rules and creates numerous opportunities for litigation. The process of securing approval to build new housing in downtown Winchester is so onerous, Howard says, that developers simply won’t bother…

What it amounts to is the worst of all worlds. Sensible, smart-growth housing plans often languish, while single-family homes proliferate on large lots in sprawling suburban subdivisions — one of the few types of housing that can be easily built in Massachusetts under current law. State officials rightly fear that the housing market dynamics squeeze middle-class families so much that they’re endangering the state’s economic health. It also ensures that much of the growth that does occur is unplanned, expensive, and environmentally harmful.

It’s pretty much the same story in greater Seattle, except that it’s more local rather than State regulations that are getting in the way. Another difference is that numerous rail systems are already in place across greater Boston, while much of the planning for growth around transit in the central Puget Sound region is for future stations. In any case, effective planning at the regional scale requires a regional authority that has both big “sticks” and big “carrots,” and that typically means the State. The State legislation proposed in Massachusetts would:

…offer municipalities a raft of enticements to align their zoning policies with the state’s housing needs. Communities that opt to designate a dense-growth zone would get access to state planning money and a leg up in competition for billions of dollars in state sewer and water aid. Crucially, the bill would also allow towns with dense-growth zones to assess extra impact fees on developers to account for the burden new residents create for schools and libraries; easing the common worry that new residents will burden public services should make towns more receptive to new housing. The bill also gives towns that accept dense development zones more authority to prevent construction in other areas. That will deter sprawl-style development, and locals who fear the impact of new construction on open space will have an incentive to support dense-growth zones in their towns.

It would also give towns new authority to limit subdivisions, encourage municipalities to simplify their permitting processes to make approval more predictable, and expand an existing program that awards cash to towns and cities that designate neighborhoods for dense, mixed-income housing.

“Top-down planning” is a dirty word to many who follow urban planning issues—the 2009 Washington State House Bill 1490 (the “TOD bill”) is a notorious recent example of overblown concerns. But the reality is that regional land use planning cannot succeed without programs that apply to the region as a whole. And the most powerful strategy is funding—i.e. a carrot—offered to municipalities that align local planning with established regional policies, as do many of the Massachusetts proposals noted above.

Though more likely to be contentious, the State “stick” should also play a role. Since 1969 Massachusetts has had one of the more extreme examples of that stick applied to affordable housing in its Comprehensive Permit Act, a.k.a. “40B.” 40B allows developers to circumvent local zoning if they are proposing to build affordable housing in a municipality that has a shortage. 40B is far from perfect, and  it seems highly unlikely that such a law could be passed in Washington State today, or pretty much anywhere else in America for that matter. But if we’re serious about tackling our region’s housing challenges, we ought to be considering bold, State-level strategies along the same lines as 40B.

As an example of how the State’s carrots and sticks could be applied, consider the widely agreed upon goal in the central Puget Sound region to ensure sufficient affordable housing in locations with access to high-quality transit. Today there are few effective tools to make this happen. What if State funds were made available to subsidize housing in transit station areas, but only for municipalities that zone their station areas to accommodate significant growth? Or how about 40B-style law that applies only to the construction of new affordable housing located within a station area? (One of the flaws of 40B is that it doesn’t regulate where within a given city the affordable housing can be located.)

With its Growth Management Act, Washington State has pushed further than most States to promote smart growth. But local, regional, and global conditions have changed massively in the 22 years since it was enacted. The State—and the central Puget Sound region in particular—is growing up. It’s time for the State and its municipalities to play nice together like grown ups for the good of us all.


This post is part of a (sporadic) series.  Photo by the author.

*Must be nice to have a newspaper with an editorial board that isn’t stuck in the Leave It To Beaver era.