A New Strategy to Save the Puget Sound Region

Less than a year from now an agency most have never heard of will adopt a regional land use plan for the central Sound region of Kitsap, Snohomish, King, and Pierce counties. Unless things change, it’ll be the wrong one.

The Puget Sound Regional Council, made up of representatives from jurisdictions across the region, is in the process of updating our regional land use plan known as Vision 2050. The State’s Growth Management Act instructs our region to develop multi-county planning policies which direct how we, in turn, develop our countywide planning policies, local comprehensive plans, and zoning code.

In other words, it’s a huge deal and will impact your life in ways you probably don’t realize.

We can all agree that the four-county region of Kitsap, Snohomish, King, and Pierce has experienced extraordinary growth over the last two decades, particularly in the previous several years.

You may be more surprised to learn that we expected and planned for this. The projections we used for Vision 2020 more or less ended up on target with a margin of error of 1.8% for jobs and 2.7% for population. That’s pretty extraordinary.

By 2050 we expect to add more than 1.8 million residents and 1.2 million jobs to the central Puget Sound region (or in my new standard of measurements, that’s 8.4 new Tacomas). Our job is to figure out where to put those people while protecting what we love about our home.

Population and job growth forecast for the central Sound region courtesy PSRC

Since Vision 2020 passed, our policy has been to focus the bulk of the growth into our largest cities and protect rural working and wild lands.

That hasn’t been without resistance. Pierce County has historically attempted to push back and encourage growth into parts of the county where infrastructure is a challenge. Conversely, some cities would prefer less growth.

Despite those challenges, the plan has been a success in many respects. Growth in rural areas has slowed considerably and returned to cities.

While much of the region’s growth has been positive and driven by a booming economy bringing high wage jobs, it’s not been without cost.

We’re adding more people than housing which has meant rising housing costs, displacement, and homelessness. As people seek out more affordable housing far from work, demand has overwhelmed our transportation infrastructure and increased carbon emissions. Greenfield development is increasing stormwater demands, Puget Sound’s largest source of pollution. You would be hard-pressed to come up with a social problem in our region that isn’t impacted by this issue.

In short, we’ve successfully shifted growth away from rural areas but failed to distribute it in a way that’s healthy for people, infrastructure, or environment.

Vision 2050 more or less continues the same trajectory of its predecessors concentrating growth into urban areas and away from rural lands. Each focuses most growth near high capacity transportation infrastructure.

The current alternatives certainly accomplish the minimum of what we’re required to do by state law by planning for projected growth and adopting multi-county planning policies. I could even argue it will be an improvement over what we have now with more deliberate effort to focus growth near high capacity transit like light rail and bus rapid transit.

Unfortunately, each alternative is also based on the same flawed premise in contradiction to our region’s values.

We can write all the policies we want about equity, protecting Puget Sound, climate change, and quality of life, but if we don’t ensure that housing and jobs are located near each other, we will continue to undermine the values we espouse.

Job-Housing mismatch is currently policy in our region. That means under Vision 2040, we plan for Seattle and the East King County core cities to concentrate jobs, income, and wealth into a small area but not enough housing to accommodate.

Under each alternative considered for the Vision 2050 update, that would continue to be policy.

What does that mean? The rest of the region, which hasn’t benefited as much from this economic expansion, has to pick up the slack. Since higher income people out-compete for what housing is left, everyone else is forced to commute. Poverty is being suburbanized and driven further away from resources.

I addressed these concerns in my comment letter on the Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement.

We need a new alternative. One that focuses growth towards high capacity transit, but also plans for balance in each sub-area. Using the clever jobs-housing balance index above, we should plan for 1.0 in each subarea.

We should think of housing like infrastructure. If you cannot plan for enough housing to support job growth, those jurisdictions should reduce their employment zoning.

For the Seattle and Eastside sub-areas, that will mean adding much more housing stock, and they won’t be able to accomplish this with a few new high rise condos. It means a lot of single family zoning will need to allow for additional density and filling the “missing middle” in the housing market for low rise multi-family units.

It would also mean reducing housing growth burdens and increase the amount of employment allocation elsewhere.

We aren’t playing SimCity. It doesn’t mean that this is the path the market will take. But if we plan for jobs-housing imbalance, then it will undoubtedly occur.

This shouldn’t be a radical idea, but right now it is. We need to reverse course before more damage is done.

Our Growth Management Policy Board will continue discussions on Vision 2050 this Thursday. I expect we’ll have a recommendation on the growth strategy in the next month or so. I’ll be recommending that we “plan for 1.0” throughout the region, but I need your help. Contact your mayors, county executives, city and county councilmembers. Ask them to support the plan for jobs-housing balance to reduce costs, protect Puget Sound, reduce greenhouse gases, and improve our quality of life.

Over the next two weeks, I’ll have more details on the impacts of jobs-housing imbalance to our region.

Pierce County Councilmember. Serving Gig Harbor, Fox Island, Key Peninsula, Ruston, and parts of North and West Tacoma.