Comment: Planning for change by changing how we plan

We need reform of our state’s growth and planning laws to better address sprawl and climate change.

By Davina Duerr / For The Herald

How far you drive to work, whether you can walk or bike to nearby stores, the cost of important infrastructure like roads and schools — and how much energy we all use — are all at least partially due to something few of us think about.

That quiet, nearly invisible thing is planning.

For decades, minimal planning meant a free-for-all, with subdevelopments, strip malls and cul-de-sacs popping up on the cheapest land possible, often far from cities.

Suburban sprawl may seem cheap at first, but it’s not only expensive to install the required infrastructure but also expensive in the long-run for taxpayers, homeowners, our quality of life and, frankly, the natural environment.

Long commutes take up more gas, time and stress. All that far-flung sprawl and driving is a major reason why 40 percent to 45 percent of emissions come from vehicles.

Another hidden price of sprawl is the bill paid by taxpayers. Building homes far from existing schools, fire stations and police services means taxpayers get stuck paying for all that new infrastructure. Two-lane county roads never intended to handle so many vehicles have to be expanded, and those costs are also passed on to you and me.

The other problem with a lack of planning is land is often cheap because it’s more dangerous because of natural hazards such as flood zones or rising sea levels. Years later, after it’s clear nobody should live there, it often falls on taxpayers to clean up the mess.

Where, how, and what we build matters. If we’re not paying attention to planning, it can easily lead to unintended consequences even mistakes.

Coaches know this. They constantly tell players, “Failing to plan is planning to fail.”

There is a better way.

I’m introducing legislation to make smart changes in how we plan across Washington state. Changes that make sense to me as an architect, a lawmaker and somebody who wants her children — and yours — to live in a place that’s better than when we found it.

If sprawl is costly and wasteful, what’s a better alternative?

What I’m proposing would focus on sustainable planning and battling climate change and the impacts of climate change.

It would require all counties to plan for how they’d mitigate natural hazards like flooding, drought, wildfires and rising sea levels. The legislation would also include funding to help local governments do that work.

The other major part of my proposal is adding climate change as a new element to our state’s Growth Management Act.

The ten most populated counties would submit plans on how they’d reduce emissions.

There are various ways to shorten commutes, get people out of their cars, and emit fewer greenhouse gases that are driving climate change.

Local governments can reduce emissions from vehicles through more compact development — the opposite of sprawl — by supporting more mass transit, electrifying transit and making it easier for people to walk and bike to where they need to go.

And isn’t that what we crave: walkable and friendly neighborhoods?

I don’t know anybody who complains about having too many sidewalks and bike paths in their neighborhood, or who wants to spend more time in their car commuting to work and running errands.

This may seem like common sense, and it is. But wealthy special interests will fight to kill this legislation. If you support this idea, please contact your lawmakers — by email or the toll-free Hotline at 800-562-6000 — and tell them you support smarter growth, not more suburban sprawl.

Rep. Davina Duerr, D-Bothell, represents the 1st Legislative District. She is a professional architect and longtime Bothell resident. She has worked to preserve open space, create more affordable housing, and protect our environment.

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