Issue 558June 2017

Learning from Washington’s Growth Management Act

Do state growth and planning laws result in better regional planning?

By Egon Terplan
Urbanist Article July 31, 2017

Although the Bay Area and the greater Seattle area (hereinafter referred to as Puget Sound) are both fast-growing, high-cost, tech-industry-dominated regions surrounded by wild, protected open space, the land use planning that protects that open space and channels growth to urban areas is markedly different. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Washington State’s planning laws have teeth. As a result, the region — particularly Seattle — is building vastly more housing than the Bay Area is. And even during an economic boom, the rate of housing price escalation is far less than the Bay Area’s.

Key differences in approaches to land use planning

Washington State’s Growth Management Act, first adopted in 1990, puts specific requirements on how local governments carry out land use planning. Each city and county receives a targeted amount of job and housing growth they must plan for over 20 years. In turn, each jurisdiction must then show — in a comprehensive plan— that they have the zoning capacity and development regulations to accommodate at least all the growth (if not more) in their target.[1] Once a jurisdiction has adopted a comprehensive plan, some future development then has to go through environmental review; however, local jurisdictions can also designate areas that are exempt from environmental review. In Seattle, for example environmental review is not required for projects of up to 200 dwelling units or with up to 30,000 square feet of nonresidential space in urban villages like South Lake Union.[2] The lighter environmental review is coupled with an urban growth boundary beyond which development is extremely restricted. Finally, in looking at local revenue sources, the state relies heavily on sales taxes as there is no state income tax, and Washington allows property taxes to readjust based on market reassessments, unlike California’s Prop. 13 freeze on reassessments until sale.

California does not have a state growth management act. Instead, we have the Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act (SB 375 from 2008), which requires two things of regional agencies: (1) planning for the region’s complete housing needs, and (2) projecting land use patterns and transportation investments in a way that leads to reducing per capita greenhouse gas emissions. Regional agencies charged with enacting the law have explicitly stressed that it does not force any changes to local land use planning, and that each jurisdiction retains its cherished right to a final say on all land use decisions. As a result, California maintains a weak form of planning for housing with few sticks. The state provides housing targets to regional agencies (MTC and ABAG) who then negotiate eight-year housing targets with each jurisdiction — but there is no penalty for failing to reach those targets. In theory, each jurisdiction must have an adopted housing element as part of their general plan that shows they have the zoned capacity for the designated amount of housing, but in reality there is no way to compel them to build it. This process is called the Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) and is integrated with Plan Bay Area, the region’s long-range transportation and land use strategy. 

By way of contrast, Washington’s Growth Management Act:

  1. Requires counties to establish urban growth areas, with rural and natural areas beyond. The state assigns each county a growth target, and the county works with its cities to determine where the growth should take place. Those targets are then used in the comprehensive planning process. Within urban areas, most growth must be allocated with minimum densities of four units per acre. Beyond the urban line, new residential densities are a maximum of one unit per five acres. Over time, this distinction will create a clear boundary between urban and rural.
  2. Requires cities to include zoning capacity for greater than their growth target as part of the comprehensive plan. A comprehensive plan must include five elements: land use, housing, capital facilities, utilities and rural element. The land use element must not only identify where the future growth will occur but also have zoning capacity and other development regulations to accommodate that growth over at least 20 years. In reality, many jurisdictions actually zone for 25 percent more than their growth target because they recognize that market factors (such as unwilling land sellers) will lead to some parcels not becoming development sites. While the 25 percent additional zoning capacity is not required, each jurisdiction must provide some rationale for market factors in demonstrating its growth capacity and then justify its assumptions. This approach would avoid a situation like the one we’ve seen in Brisbane, California, where the city rejected the housing in the proposed mixed-use Baylands project.
  3. Establishes a hearing board to oversee compliance with the Growth Management Act (GMA) and sanctions for cities that do not comply. Cities, counties or even state agencies can be sanctioned by the governor and/or the hearing board if they are not in compliance. Sanctions could include loss of the city or county’s ability to collect property tax or to receive their respective portion of the sales tax, gas tax or other state taxes. If the nature of the noncompliance is found to be a threat to the GMA, the ability to implement projects and developments can also be suspended. That said, the GMA takes an “innocent until proven guilty” approach when it comes to placing sanctions on cities, and cities are given time to correct any compliance problems. Since the law’s beginnings in the early 1990s, only one county has ever been sanctioned. 
Permitted Housing Units — Central Puget Sound Region An increasing share of housing units are permitted inside urban growth areas. Source: Puget Sound Regional Council.

Lessons for the Bay Area 

  1. Long growth targets (20 years) increase the overall zoned capacity. By creating 20-year growth targets (as compared to California’s eight-year housing goals), cities need to think about growth needs at a scale longer than a single real estate cycle. In California, if the RHNA process takes place during a recession, there is significant pressure to reduce the eight-year targets even more given unease about the extent to which growth will return. Over a 20-year span, it is harder to make that case. And the longer time frame increases the target numbers and forces cities to have zoning for at least the total amount in the target.
  2. Planning matters more than the entitlement process. The comprehensive plan is the document that most shapes a city’s future. But once the community has discussed and debated what to include within the plan, it is very hard to block individual development projects. That appropriately shifts the focus of NIMBYs and other opponents to the planning process, where it should be, as opposed to the entitlement phase for each project where there is an incentive for opponents to be bought off by individual developers.
  3. Wealthier suburbs must still plan for and approve their fair share of regional growth. In Washington, there is fair share in practice, not just in name. But local communities have flexibility in how they reach their respective job and housing targets. For example, wealthy Bainbridge Island, a half-hour ferry ride from downtown Seattle, had to plan for more than 5,600 new residents and 2,800 jobs between 2010 and 2036.[3] Left on its own, the community may have chosen not to plan for growth (to maintain their upscale, semi-rural character), but instead it was forced to include a growth allotment given that it had become an incorporated city and therefore “urban.” To comply, the city decided to put virtually all its projected growth within walking distance of the ferry terminal. This led to creative projects like the “Grow” community, which has 142 housing units on eight acres.[4] The project used a density bonus that allows for 1.5 times the base density because the project could demonstrate its low energy consumption. Such a project would never have been possible without the Growth Management Act, as there would have been no motivation or requirement for Bainbridge to plan for its share of regional growth. By comparison, Sausalito (a half-hour ferry ride from San Francisco) received a growth target of 258 new households and 660 jobs between 2010 and 2040. Sausalito’s response was to draft a letter expressing “concern” about the “high target” and provide numerous reasons it viewed the target as unjustified.[5] In Washington, such a response would not be possible legally, politically or culturally. 
  4. There is a clear urban growth boundary surrounding the region, with a rural or wild character beyond. While the Bay Area has various growth boundaries around numerous communities, there is no true regional or megaregional urban growth boundary, thus allowing the region’s growth needs to shift ever more into surrounding rural areas, including the Central Valley. In contrast, Puget Sound is capturing much more growth within its urban growth boundaries. Since the passage of the Growth Management Act, total regional growth outside the urban growth areas has decreased from one-quarter of all housing units to only 4 percent, making it an effective sprawl mitigation tool.

What does this mean for California?

California absolutely needs to restructure its property tax, such as by modifying Prop. 13 to gradually shift property tax reassessments upward toward the market value. But that change might be more difficult to achieve than focusing more narrowly on incorporating some of Washington’s approach to growth management into our own state laws. California’s SB 375 mandates regional plans that include each region’s entire housing needs while reducing per capita greenhouse gas emissions. But it makes few demands on local jurisdictions. Instead, California needs to establish state-level regulations so that all communities plan in a way that meets the state and regional needs (such as sufficient housing, preserving open space and putting jobs near regional transit). For communities that do not act in accordance with those regional needs and goals, we should develop some real sanctions, like Washington’s threat of loss of tax revenue.Recently, there’s been some movement on this idea in Sacramento through bills like SB 35. That bill, authored by San Francisco State Senator Scott Wiener, streamlines the approvals process for multifamily housing (with some affordable units) in cities that are not meeting their regional housing targets.[6] The streamlining simply makes approval of the multifamily housing a nondiscretionary action. By using the stick of some loss of local control, this bill sends the message that the regional housing targets must be taken seriously and makes it more likely that cities will actually allow the housing envisioned in those targets.Wiener’s bill is a good start. But there’s much more to do, particularly around making our growth targets longer term (increasing from eight to 20 years), requiring cities to have zoned capacity for at least 100 percent of the growth in their RHNA, incorporating job targets into regional and local plans in order to shift more employment to transit-served downtowns, and establishing meaningful urban growth boundaries at the edges of our metropolitan areas. Protecting the edge is a particularly critical need for cities and counties in the Central Valley. As we move forward on additional state legislation and think about growth management in California, we should look north to Washington for getting housing built and a better approach to long-term planning.



[1] See:

[2] See:

[3] See:

[4] See:

[5] See: Sausalito did issue permits for 48 out of the 165 housing units in its 2007-2014 RHNA. Its 29 percent of the RHNA goal was just below the county’s overall performance of 32 percent. See:

[6] See SPUR’s letter of support on SB 35:

About the Authors: 

Egon Terplan is SPUR’s Regional Planning Director.

Special thanks to Ashley Hong for research assistance.

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