Remove barriers to help counties not participating in the “Seattle boom”

Perhaps no legislator has done more to bring attention to our state’s rural economies than Rep. JT Wilcox (R-Yelm). On occasions when the spotlight is on the “Goliaths” of our economy, such as Boeing, Wilcox asks what the Legislature can do to give a boost to the Davids too, including in our rural areas.

This effort by Wilcox and others has been on my mind lately, spurred by the increasing use in Olympia of the catchphrase “One Washington.” As legislators debate how best to finally solve the McCleary problem, One Washington is being cited as a goal of their work: to craft an education funding system that works for every part of the state.

If One Washington means anything, surely it must include bridging the urban-rural divide, and not just on education funding. The Seattle area is booming, but that boom doesn’t encompass every area of the state. The widely-varying unemployment rates from county to county make that clear.

If legislators are serious about uniting as One Washington, they can prove it by passing concrete proposals to help rural areas grow economically as well.

What can be done?
One concrete idea already passed the Senate on a bipartisan vote. SB 5790’s goal is to remove barriers to growth in areas that aren’t sharing in the boom times.

The bill would give more flexibility to counties that meet the definition for “economic deterioration.” In these counties, local government would have a freer hand to allow certain types of growth, including business growth outside of urban areas. Their planning and permitting would be freed somewhat from strict Growth Management Act provisions.

This is one small step to update the Growth Management Act for places where some of the law’s provisions just aren’t working, or aren’t really relevant. For some of these areas, the act offers little benefit but a lot of headaches and wasted effort.

Urban growth rules don’t make sense for every part of the state
Under the Growth Management Act, counties are required to steer business growth to urban areas. That might make sense for, say, Skagit, an I-5 county that is intent on preserving farmland. But in remote, hilly Stevens County, for instance, the requirement doesn’t seem very applicable.

De-emphasizing the urban growth rules in these areas makes sense. In most places that would meet the “economic deterioration” criteria, urban areas are few and far between. Sen. Dean Takko (D-Longview), a sponsor of SB 5790, questioned the efficacy of these rules “when you’ve got counties that have the same population or nearly the same population as they had 50, 60, 70 years ago, do you really need all of these things constraining growth, because there is no growth. In some of those smaller counties, what do [Urban Growth Areas] really mean?”

The bill, Lens explains, “would also require the Growth Management Hearings Board defer to local governments” when the effected counties choose to allow more flexible rules for where employers can set up shop. That would not only help economic development, it would help these cash-strapped counties save money on expensive hearings board processes and appeals.

This is not a comprehensive bill nor a cure-all for counties suffering from high unemployment rates. It is a step in the right direction, however, and gives local governments more say over what happens in their areas. The House should match its colleagues on the other side of the rotunda and pass this out with a bipartisan vote.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.