Does Washington's growth law do its job?
ROSLYN, Wash. - It's a quiet afternoon at Gerth's Garage, and David Gerth decides it's time for a break. Wiping grease from his hands, he wanders down a dirt road to the Cle Elum River, where he sits among the ponderosa pines and listens to the swift river.
Gerth is not only one of Roslyn's best mechanics, he's also mayor of this rural town just east of Washington's Cascade Mountains. Like many of the 1,000 largely blue-collar residents, he came here nearly 30 years ago, drawn by the town's proximity to nature. The forests that surround the town, though long harvested for commercial timber, still provide habitat for elk, bear and cougar, and threatened steelhead and bull trout inhabit the river. Roslyn's landscape won notice in the early 1990s as the filming location of the television series Northern Exposure.
"Outdoor life is a given here," says Gerth. "People have been going down to the river for decades."
But soon, thousands of new people may be visiting the river. Trendwest Resorts, Inc., a Redmond, Wash.-based company, recently won approval from Kittitas County to turn 6,200 wooded acres along the river into more than 3,700 homes, 550 hotel rooms and two golf courses. The MountainStar resort will nearly quintuple both the size and population of Roslyn.
"When we first saw the plans, it was truly mind-boggling," says Gerth. The town was worried about several issues, including increased traffic, loss of river access, and burdens on the town's water supply and public services, he says.
But when Gerth and many locals opposed to the development protested, they found little help from the state's Growth Management Act, which, ironically, was created to protect small rural areas like theirs from development. A local grassroots group has spent over five years filing appeals and a lawsuit to try to stave off the resort, but last fall it signed off on it after winning some concessions from Trendwest. The deal is far from what opponents wanted, and the years of legal wrangling have many in the state wondering how well Washington's growth laws are working.
Growth plans spark years of conflictCreated in 1990, Washington's Growth Management Act requires counties to create boundaries separating urban development from rural areas, agriculture and forestlands. But it provides few details on how to do this, leaving the decisions in the hands of each county. Small towns like Roslyn can be shut out of the process, especially if their ideas differ from the county's.
Roslyn Mayor Dave Gerth says that, since 1996, the town's growth plans have recognized the importance of protecting surrounding areas. But, he says, coordination between Kittitas County and Roslyn has long been lacking. "The county did not coordinate with the city's comprehensive plan," says Gerth. "Roslyn's city council has felt largely ignored."
That feeling first emerged in 1994, when, over objections from Roslyn residents, Kittitas County designated 7,000 forested acres open for development along the Cle Elum River next to town. Just three years later, Trendwest filed permits with the county to construct MountainStar as the state's first "master planned resort" under the Act.
RIDGE, a local activist group, challenged the county's plans, taking the fight to one of three state boards set up to resolve disputes over interpretation of the Growth Management Act.
The board handed the county a victory, noting that "the act gave the counties tremendous discretion in the planning process."
Trendwest officials say Roslyn residents should trust the county, since it demanded the company meet over 120 requirements that address impacts such as water, sewer and increased traffic. The company also spent over $3 million to study MountainStar's environmental impacts.
"We've worked hard to address concerns and made tremendous progress to plan this project in a responsible manner," says Mike Moyer, senior vice president, recently retired, of Trendwest.
Still, Kittitas County's environmental studies and interpretation of the state's growth laws sparked a flurry of appeals from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, Yakama Indian Nation, RIDGE, and others.
Armed with lobbyists and attorneys, Trendwest fought off the challenges in front of the Growth Hearings Board and in court. Despite the setbacks, RIDGE kept up the pressure on Trendwest, hoping to force changes in the MountainStar plan. Finally, last July, Trendwest agreed to meet RIDGE at the bargaining table.
The two sides reached agreement on several issues unresolved by years of litigation. The complex agreement protects 550 acres of open space around Roslyn, decreases the number of homes by 865, funds $1 million in land and historic preservation projects, guarantees better than minimum wages to resort employees, and maintains Roslyn's public access to the river. In return, RIDGE agrees to drop any further lawsuits.
More important, says Ellie Belew, a member of RIDGE, the agreement addresses what's most valued by Roslyn in ways that Kittitas County's growth plans did not.
"There are things that mean something to us * a living wage, seeing the stars at night, feeling safe, being able to walk to the river," says Belew. "We knew what was important to us and we put it on the table."
New fuel for criticsThe agreement, which paves the way for construction of MountainStar sometime this year, has provided new fuel for critics of Washington's planning laws.
Gordon Bradley, a University of Washington professor studying growth issues, says Washington's hands-off approach results in widely varying approaches to growth strategies across the state. Seattle's King County has contained over 95 percent of sprawl within its urban growth boundaries, but in more rural areas of the state, such as Kittitas County, interest in economic development often results in looser growth restrictions.
Because there is no state agency with rule-making authority to interpret the Act's broad language, the law is vague and full of loopholes, says Tim Trohimovich of the growth watchdog group, 1,000 Friends of Washington.
Trohimovich wants the state's Office of Community Development to be able to prepare binding growth regulations, and the Legislature to pass laws that encourage the state to invest money for things such as roads in places where the growth act encourages development. The prospects for tightening growth laws, though, are dim, he says, given the state's evenly split Legislature.
Roslyn's experience indicates a need for greater understanding of growth's impacts on local communities, says RIDGE's Belew.
Gerth agrees; he wants state growth plans to "give more weight to the vision of the people impacted."
For now, though, Gerth acknowledges his town's quiet days are almost over. "We know that the honeymoon is over and the people are coming."
Dave Wortman writes from Seattle, Washington.
YOU CAN CONTACT ...
- David Gerth, City of Roslyn,
- Jim Nyberg, general
manager, Trendwest Resorts, 509/649-3000;
- Tim Trohimovich, 1,000 Friends of Washington, 206/343-0681.