How much people contribute to climate change, and are affected by it, depends heavily on where they live and how they move around.
In Western Washington, housing and transportation options are increasingly determined by the 1990 Growth Management Act.
That’s why Rep. Davina Duerr, D-Bothell, authored a bill to change the act by requiring local governments to consider climate impacts when updating their comprehensive plans.
But her handiwork, House Bill 1099, failed to pass in 2021 and again this year, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in the last moments of the session.
Though it didn’t become law, the bill is proving influential.
King County and Bothell intend to adopt its provisions. And other counties and cities are looking to the much-debated legislation for guidance as they begin work on their 2024 comprehensive plan updates.
“We’ll look at it and implement what makes sense for Marysville,” said Haylie Miller, that fast-growing city’s community development director.
Planners in other large Snohomish County cities, and the county itself, say they are doing the same. Besides, they know the bill could be introduced again and affect future planning cycles.
‘I don’t know exactly what happened’
Duerr said she’s willing to try a third time to get the bill passed despite its tumultuous journey in 2022.
“It changed so many times, frankly at this point I have a little bit of PTSD over it,” she said. “I don’t know exactly what happened. Probably a combination of things.”
Duerr concedes the growth management process is “pretty wonky” and flies under the radar for many residents. But, she said, “it’s an opportunity for people who care about climate change to advocate to their counties and cities, to say we’re concerned, and we want to plan around it.”
The Growth Management Act requires local governments in the state’s 10 most populous counties to plan for orderly population growth. HB 1099 would have required them to reduce urban sprawl and reduce the number of miles residents drive, to help meet state requirements for limiting greenhouse gas emissions. The bill also addressed climate resiliency, requiring counties with more than 20,000 people, and all cities with more than 6,000, to plan for risks like wildfire and floods.
The bill had a lot of supporters. The environmental group Futurewise tallied “36 local elected officials, two tribal governments, several cities, seven labor unions, over 70 climate and housing justice organizations and thousands of individual constituents.”
But conservative legislators weren’t on board. Neither was the construction industry, which worries about limits on what kind of homes developers can build and where they can put them. They look to rural maps and see available land for popular single-family homes. Climate activists instead see long, carbon-intensive commutes and properties at risk of wildfire.
HB 1099 was one of the first bills to be introduced in the House in January, and won approval on a party-line vote two weeks into the session. It went next to the Senate, also controlled by Democrats, where it passed after deletion of key provisions requiring local governments take steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
To Duerr and her Democratic colleagues, that gutted the bill.
A conference committee of two Democrats and one Republican from each chamber was formed to hash out the differences between the House and Senate versions. What emerged was a bill that not only included the greenhouse gas provisions, but also brand new language embracing affordable “middle housing” such as duplexes and backyard cottages.
It is rare when a bill that comes out of a conference committee doesn’t become law. But HB 1099 didn’t make it to the finish line.
On March 10, the clock ticking on this year’s short session ran out before the House could take a final vote. Some blamed the Republicans’ time-consuming insistence on a roll-call vote over the state budget.
“We’ve been working on this bill for two years,” said Alex Brennan, executive director of Futurewise. “To get so close and not have it work out was really heartbreaking. That said, I don’t want to diminish other accomplishments.”
A lot of growth to manage
City and county managers are always wary of unfunded state mandates. As things turned out, climate change planning isn’t going to be mandated — or unfunded.
This session saw lawmakers step up with the biggest infusion of dollars for planning since the GMA passed, Brennan noted.
The Department of Commerce will distribute three types of grants. There is $10 million for the four counties whose plan updates are due in 2024 — King, Snohomish, Pierce and Kitsap — and the cities within them. Another $2.3 million is available through competitive grants. And yet another $7.5 million is being offered to governments that adopt ordinances authorizing “middle housing” such as duplexes, cottage housing and condominiums in areas now zoned as single-family residential.
Legislators also gave local governments six more months to meet their comprehensive plan update deadline, extending it to Dec. 31, 2024. The idea, said Duerr, was to provide more time to incorporate climate change into their plans.
Snohomish County and its cities are in the initial stages of the update process. Timelines and opportunities for comment are listed on their websites.
There will be a lot of growth to manage.
By 2044, Snohomish County is projected to have 1.1 million residents, 308,000 more than today.
The county government makes land-use decisions outside of city limits. It expects to add a new climate change element to its comprehensive plan, along with one that enhances coordination with Native American tribes — strong proponents of climate action — and one responding to the extension of light rail to Everett, a key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The current natural environment element may be updated with an urban tree canopy amendment, which climate activists, notably the Snohomish County League of Women Voters, consider a priority.
The county has decided to use three months of the state’s timeline extension to complete technical work and an environmental review, said David Killingstad, long-range planning manager.
Cities are limited in what they can do to slow climate change, said York Stevens-Wajda, Everett’s planning director. New regulations could make buildings greener, he said, but half of greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation and “we only control city streets.” Consistency and coordination at all levels of government are needed for climate mitigation, he said.
Stevens-Wajda followed the progress of HB 1099 closely. “I was sure it was going to pass,” he said.
The city already does, or intends to do, much of what the bill would have required, he said. Its comprehensive plan already has a sustainability and climate change element, which Stevens-Wajda said will be strengthened in the 2024 update.
“Our Climate Action Plan will be updated separately, and we’ll look for ways to incorporate that,” he said.
South of Everett, the city of Lynnwood has declared May “Big Ideas Month” to start public engagement on its comprehensive plan update. Ashley Winchell, community planning manager, said the update may not fully address HB 1099’s requirements.
“However, we recognize that action is necessary to ensure that the Lynnwood community maintains a high quality of life, and this includes being resilient in the face of climate change,” she said. “City assets, such as the wastewater treatment plant, are vital and could be threatened by rising sea levels.”
Edmonds is about to release a Climate Action Plan that will be woven into the update of its comprehensive plan, said Susan McLaughlin, development services director there. The current plan “already has more than 300 references to sustainability,” she said.
To the west of her city is Puget Sound, where even moderate-level predictions of sea level rise could cause flooding. To the east is Highway 99, a major transit corridor where it makes sense to locate high-density housing. But, asks McLaughlin, how do you make such people-packed places livable?
That’s one more challenge for planners and policy makers.
Julie Titone is an Everett writer who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @julietitone. Her stories are supported by the Herald’s Environmental and Climate Reporting Fund.