Testimony of Maile Johnson, April 26, 2000

The Growth Management Hearing Board invalidated the Comp Plan (CP) because excessive densities and sprawling urban development were allowed which would destroy the rural character of the county and which contradicted the Vision Statement (VS). The plan was also invalidated for its failure to provide for affordable housing.

The threatened destruction of the rural character of the islands, the natural landscape and the diversity of our community is the reason why I was a party to the appeal of the CP. I had attended the meetings for years and had seen that no one had time to attend the meetings besides the few committee members who gave a number of years of their lives to do so. The public was reassured by the language in the VS that assured them the rural town feel, pristine natural environment, and personal community atmosphere would remain. But the zoning densities in the plan permitted such aggressive and extensive development that those words were a fantasy. The CP allowed the islands to be transformed into urban sprawl. The Hearing Board agreed and ruled that the plan was clearly inconsistent with the VS and would permit the loss of the rural nature of the islands. It ordered the plan be revised accordingly, which is the topic of these hearings.

The zoning options proposed for adoption would result in buildout populations ranging from forty to nearly sixty thousand people. Discussing whether to allow forty or fifty or sixty thousand people as a theoretical buildout population in the islands, to me is like discussing whether to allow 140 or 160 thousand people. It is so much too much that it misses the issue entirely. As with the present CP, the proposal is to pass another plan that will permit development to overwhelm the islands physical landscape, social community and affordability.

We are a rural county and the State law requires the traditional character of this rural county to be preserved. I do not believe any of the three options presented complies with this requirement of the Growth Management Act to protect the traditional, rural character of the islands.

To have many more people live here in development patterns conforming with the State law, it will be necessary to issue most permits in the activity centers and urban areas and seriously to limit the number issued in the rural area. The Planning Department’s informational insert in last week’s Sounder informs us that the county has been subdivided to an average parcel size of 6.05 acres. When the Growth Management Hearing Board approves a certain minimum rural parcel size, such as the 5 acre minimum already determined for San Juan County, it does not mean that this is an acceptable average for the rural area. In fact the Board’s decisions emphasize that the minimum parcel size is acceptable only if it is balanced with enough parcels of a much larger size genuinely to preserve, when all those parcels have been developed, the traditional rural nature of the landscape. Allowing one residence per 6 acres on average, even without guest houses, is not a preservation of the traditional rural landscape of this county.

I believe that to comply with the Growth Management Act the rural nature of the county must be preserved, and that a plan must be conceived from that vantage point, not simply by counting existing parcels and trying to develop as many as possible. That is illusory gain anyway, since the economic loss residents would experience would be huge. Taxes would go through the roof and the quality of life would go through the floor.

I believe there should not only be no further subdivision, I also believe there is a compelling need to extinguish existing development rights in a fair manner. We should spread the burden beyond just the farm and forest resource landowners and rural landowners and we should not increase density outright in the urban centers, but require it be transferred from the rural area.

Even option C proposes additional subdivision and in the area least appropriate, which is resource lands. We will need food and wood in the future and we will have no place to grow it if resource lands have been subdivided and developed. The staff report even notes the county may consider eliminating resource lands. Please remember that the designated forest lands tax program and the county’s open space timber and open space agriculture tax programs do not protect resource lands in the future. They encourage the use of land for those purposes at the moment, but the designation of resource lands as resource lands in the CP is the only program that attempts to preserve from development the actual resource of soils and open land capable of growing food and timber.

I urge you not to remove protection for resource lands, and not to permit their subdivision, but do spread the burden of the downzoning fairly.

I’ve spent weeks reading the most recent law across the nation on growth management as well as reading plans other communities have enacted to protect themselves from market driven growth and its inevitable companion, spiraling taxes. Several things are clear. One is that residential development does not pay for itself, and that if you enact any one of the three proposed options you will send our real estate tax burden through the roof.

Another fact that is clear from nation-wide studies is that the affordability of housing and the success of local economies are distinct from the issue of growth control. Limiting growth to a reasonable amount and a predictable annual rate of increase can actually make housing more affordable and more available, and can permit the nurturing of local businesses by keeping tax rates down. This is accomplished by implementing affordable housing programs while limiting the rate of growth. I have read dozens of court decisions and law review articles, published in such scholarly and reputable journals as the Harvard Law Review and the Harvard Environmental Law Review, citing extensive multi- state studies that reach these conclusions.

When communities select a maximum permissible annual rate of growth, they may then structure the allocation of permits. A portion of the annual permits may then be reserved for affordable housing. This would assist San Juan County to comply with the Washington State law requirement to provide for affordable housing. Those of us who appealed the CP have written a proposal titled the Smart Growth Plan which takes this approach.

GMA requires counties to plan for a certain amount of growth, set by the State, which in San Juan County’s case is 2.5%. Many in the county have been led to believe that the county’s population has been growing at 2.5% and the time period to buildout specified in the 3 options before you are calculated at a 2.5% rate. In fact, the average annual growth rate of the county between 1970 and 1993 was 5.1% per year. (In 1970 the total population of San Juan County was 3856 and in 1993 it was 11,900. Table 1, Appendix 1, Comp Plan. Use your calculator to get the average annual rate of increase.) Unless building permits are awarded at the required 2.5% annual rate, we risk repeating this long historic trend of growth at 5%. The impacts of growth and the arrival of the large buildout populations would then occur very much sooner than predicted.

The county does not have to grow faster or more than the 2.5% set by GMA and residents have the right to choose not to do so. Preservation of small town character and phasing of development to coincide with infrastructure development are legally valid reasons for slowing growth. The following is from 18 Harvard Environmental Law Review 489 (1994), beginning at note 125:

Judicial acceptance of growth boundaries began with Construction Industry Assoc. v. City of Petaluma, (1975) [review denied by the U.S. Supreme Court at 424 U.S. 934 (1976)], upholding zoning which created a growth boundary around the city [and limited growth to 500 permits per year] because "the concept of the public welfare is sufficiently broad to uphold Petaluma’s desire to preserve its small town character, its open spaces and low density of population, and to grow at an orderly and deliberate pace" [quoting the court].

. . .such regulations can actually promote the creation of affordable housing. This is particularly true where a concurrency regulation gives added weight to housing affordability when determining project approval, or where a growth boundary is linked to an increase in residential densities within the developed areas in order to counterbalance any potential decrease in densities outside the growth limits. (footnotes omitted and emphasis added).

As the quoted article notes, the number of people living in a region is an issue distinct from the diversity of the community and the affordability of its housing. San Juan County has never had a program to support affordable housing and there is now a serious scarcity of affordable housing. The order won by those who appealed the Comp Plan compels the County to comply with state law and get serious about affordable housing. Density bonuses and active County support for affordable housing programs can effectively address the affordable housing problem. I support the proposals made in the staff report regarding affordable housing, although they await completion. Allowing a tripling of population in the islands, unless concentrated in urban areas, is certain to worsen the availability of affordable housing because of the much heavier tax burden certain to result.

Famous cases of growth limitation are in Petaluma, California; Denver, Colorado; Ramapo, New York while Vermont, Florida, and hundreds of California towns have similar measures. We do not have to look so far afield, however for an effective example of growth limitation. In 1989 a citizens’ initiative successfully passed in Seattle and was codified in the Seattle Municipal Code at section 23.49.011 (1989). This ordinance limits the height and intensity of downtown development, and sets annual quotas for development. "A Smart Way to Channel Region’s Growth" page B 5, Seattle Times, April 17, 2000, describes how limitation on development in the city’s core has developed into a successful program to protect rural lands. The program allows developers to purchase development rights from willing sellers in rural King County, which may be used for additional development in specified areas of downtown Seattle. 44,000 acres of open space and farmland in Montgomery Co., Md. and 10,000 acres of open space in Boulder Co., Colo. have been preserved by similar programs. We could do the same here are has been proposed in the Smart Growth Plan.

My personal discussions with San Juan County residents suggest that a doubling of the present population may be the maximum considered consistent with the vision statement. I urge you to consider a population at buildout of no more than double the present population and I urge you to limit the annual rate of development to the 2.5% required by GMA. I urge you to allocate at least half of the permits to the urban areas to comply with GMA. This proposal has been fleshed out in the Smart Growth Plan, (attached as an exhibit) which not only achieves a buildout population of no more than double but does so in a way that spreads the burden of the downzoning more fairly. Why upzone some landowners now while you are downzoning others? Why not do as they do in Seattle or as the Smart Growth Plan proposes, and move development rights from one area to another? I strongly urge you not to lose the opportunity to provide some compensation for downzoning by requiring the transfer of development rights to the urban areas where additional density may be used.

I would like to conclude by saying I gained nothing financial by appealing the CP, I effectively downzoned my own land, I argue here for further downzoning that would apply to my own land and that of my friends and neighbors. I worked for long hours over months without compensation. I also have downzoned my own land by donating a conservation easement to the Preservation Trust. Some are very cynical about any proposal for limiting growth, saying those who have their own homes now want to pull up the bridge. Those who work to limit growth may be motivated by very valid concerns however, about destruction of natural systems, diversity of the community if saddled with heavy taxes to pay for booming development, and the loss of affordable housing and community. I hope you will hear these concerns.