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By Larry Horowitz

The Saga of Established Neighborhooods

By On
• In Bellingham, Planning,

Are the vitality and character of established residential neighborhoods worth protecting?

First, some background…

The Growth Management Act (GMA)

The Growth Management Act (GMA), which encompasses Chapter 36.70A of the Revised Code of Washington (RCW), was adopted by the Washington state legislature in 1990. The first section of the GMA, entitled “Legislative Findings” establishes the primary growth concerns for which the GMA became law.

“The legislature finds that uncoordinated and unplanned growth, together with a lack of common goals expressing the public’s interest in the conservation and the wise use of our lands, pose a threat to the environment, sustainable economic development, and the health, safety, and high quality of life enjoyed by residents of this state.” (Emphasis added.)

  • The environment.
  • Sustainable economic development.
  • The health, safety, and high quality of life enjoyed by residents.

The 1995 Amendment of the GMA: SSB 5567

By 1995, population growth had increased to the point where cities were feeling pressure to rezone established single-family neighborhoods to allow development of apartment buildings and commercial uses. These growth pressures prompted the legislature to revisit the GMA section pertaining to the vitality and character of established residential neighborhoods.

In response to these growth pressures, State Senate Bill (SSB) 5567 was enacted on July 23, 1995 and amended section RCW 36.70A.070(2) of the GMA. The intent and purpose of this amendment was to “ensure the vitality and character of established residential neighborhoods” by requiring “mandatory provisions for the preservation, improvement, and development of housing, including single-family housing.”

The law as it stands following the 1995 amendment includes a GMA requirement (not simply a GMA goal) to protect the vitality and character of established neighborhoods, including single-family neighborhoods.

But what does this mean?

Olympians for Smart Development & Livable Neighborhoods v. City of Olympia: Missing Middle Regulations

According to Growth Management Hearings Board (GMHB) members in their July 10, 2019 Final Decision & Order (FDO) for Case No. 19-2-0002c, “Neighborhood character is a nebulous subjective concept.” In this case, where Olympians for Smart Development & Livable Communities (“Petitioners”) challenged the City of Olympia’s adoption of Ordinance 7160 (the “Missing Middle regulations”), the GMHB members agreed that the Petitioners met their burden of proof that:

  • The Missing Middle regulations violate the density maximums established under the Olympia comprehensive plan; and
  • The Missing Middle’s reduced parking requirements fail to ensure that Low-Density Neighborhood character is maintained.

Clearly, in light of the fact that the GMHB concluded that the maintenance of neighborhood character must maintained, neighborhood character is not so nebulous as to prevent residents from challenging city ordinances. The GMHB concluded that Olympia’s Missing Middle regulations would substantially interfere with GMA Planning Goals 10 and 12 and imposed invalidity on the ordinance.

More Questions Than Answers?

The GMHB FDO validates the GMA requirement to ensure the character of established residential neighborhoods. But many questions remain:

- Is neighborhood character actually as nebulous as GMHB members claim?

A review of SSB 5567 indicates clear intent by state legislators to protect single-family neighborhoods from being rezoned (upzoned) to allow development of apartment buildings and commercial uses. This is the only new idea presented in the Final Bill Report for SSB 5567. Clearly, the requirement of “ensuring the vitality and character of established residential neighborhoods” under RCW 36.70A.070(2) absolutely prevents the rezone of established single-family neighborhoods to include multi-family and commercial uses.

Given the legislators’ intent for amending the GMA in 1995, a strict interpretation of the GMA would enable established single-family neighborhoods to challenge any upzone to multi-family.

Which leads us back to our original question:

- Are the vitality and character of established residential neighborhoods worth protecting?

- Are the community benefits provided by established neighborhoods worth preserving?

- And, if so, is the goal of our 1995 state legislators - to resist the pressure to upzone established single-family neighborhoods - worth honoring?

While I have my own opinion, I’m much more interested in yours.

Please, don’t be shy. Let’s have a robust conversation here on Northwest Citizen.

Thank you!

About Larry Horowitz

Posting Citizen Journalist • Member since Jan 16, 2008