Sunday, July 21, 2024

Challenges critiques of City's growth policies, advocates for balanced development


Rhona Baron (The Whistle) has written several pieces regarding the current city’s approach to building codes, which have provided misleading facts and incomplete analyses. She and others have been upset by policies that allow for higher density inside the city limits, which, in her view, will diminish the lot her home is on, perhaps blocking sunlight from her garden. She has linked these policies to the current mayor’s focus on the affordable housing crisis. In one of her columns, she went as far as to claim the mayor wants to eliminate single-family homes inside the city limits (not true, of course). 

To begin with, the policies the city is considering are only partly focused on the housing crisis. The Growth Management Act that the city is required to address in planning has fifteen goals, only one of which is housing (RCW 36.70A.020 Planning goals.) Primary among them: 

(1) Urban growth. Encourage development in urban areas where adequate public facilities and services exist or can be provided in an efficient manner. (2) Reduce sprawl. Reduce the inappropriate conversion of undeveloped land into sprawling, low-density development. (3) Transportation. Encourage efficient multimodal transportation systems that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and per capita vehicle miles traveled, and are based on regional priorities and coordinated with county and city comprehensive plans. Has anybody noticed (besides the housing crisis) the sprawl that has occurred out of Ski Hill, Icicle, and Chumstick? The disappearing orchards, truck farms, hay fields, and pastures? The exploding traffic?

Then look at how housing is addressed in the GMA: 4) Housing. Plan for and accommodate housing affordable to all economic segments of the population of this state, promote a variety of residential densities and housing types, and encourage preservation of existing housing stock. Does this sound like an obsessive focus on affordable housing?

The GMA goes on to list sustainable economic development, climate change, citizen participation, shoreline protections, and more. So what the city is trying to do is address some of the pressing needs, which, of course, includes housing. But managing growth and sprawl and all of its attendant environmental and quality of life costs is equally important, no? 

Rhona cites some data where people were asked if they want higher density or want to keep the city just like it is. Most, she said, want to leave it like it is. The problem is, these are all hard goals to accommodate, trade-offs are required. Surveys that don’t ask questions where the costs of trade-offs are considered are pretty useless to the dialogue we need. Would folks rather let sprawl go unchecked and see the last open spaces in the upper valley disappear into one-acre McMansions like ski hill? See the night sky obliterated with more light pollution? (We have owned our home up the Icicle since 1991; the degradation has been stunning.) And then there’s the absurd traffic.

One thing can be shown with facts - what happens when you do nothing. In 2010, Upper Valley MEND published an update to a study done originally in 2007, which documented the rapid conversion of homes inside the city limits into 2nd homes (a ‘vacant’ home by Census standards is one that is not a permanent address for anyone, owner or long-term renter). Here are the numbers for the city of Leavenworth as reported every year of the full census: In 1990 11% of homes were vacant; in 2000, 19% were vacant; in 2010, 27% were vacant. Then, the study predicted that without any action, the number would be 35% vacant by 2020. The latest number was 40% - ponder that number of vacant homes inside the city! This is what happens when you do nothing, which Rhona and her friends apparently are advocating – at least by attacking some approaches while offering no realistic alternatives (besides those offered by a ten-minute Google search unvetted by anyone in the community who has actually worked on these problems for the last twenty years – see the third Whistle article in her series on affordable housing.)

Finally, as opposed to trying to stop addressing the key issues at all, I would suggest that we all focus on two things: 1) As we build a more dense urban village which in my view we must, let’s do the things that make villages more livable (like where I would want to live to raise my kids or retire): quiet neighborhoods full of permanent residents of diverse backgrounds, affordability, good schools, walkability, availability of services that serve local population in retail, medical, social, etc. 2) Work harder to preserve open public spaces, in and out of the city limits, promote policies that incent landowners to permanently protect open spaces from development, fight county commissioners granting special exceptions to reduce lot size in rural areas, protect water sources and river banks, and radically reduce whole-house short term rentals.

John Agnew



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