Saving Puget Sound: A Conservation Strategy for the 21st Century

Chapter 10. Land Use: Growth Management and Beyond

doi: https://doi.org/10.47886/9781888569834.ch10

Land use regulations are “the most fundamental and pervasive environmental laws of all.” [Settle and Gavigan 1993:875]

Washington’s Growth Management Act (GMA) is the “integrating framework” for all its other land-use laws, in the words of the state legislature (Legislative finding, 1995 code 347, section 1). Because land use is so fundamental to how ecosystems function, this makes the GMA the single most important law for conservation in the Puget Sound region. Compared to the land-use laws that came before it or that still apply in most of the rest of the country, the GMA provides an invaluable foundation for conservation. It is the primary reason the region has decreased its per capita consumption of land and increased protections for important fish and wildlife habitats since the early 1990s. But as a foundation for conserving the state’s major ecosystems, it is still fundamentally flawed.

The GMA divides the landscape into categories of urban, rural, farming, forestry, or mining areas based almost entirely on human uses of the land. It actually refers to “ecosystems” only once, in its definition of “critical areas,” which it generally treats at the small scale of wetlands, shellfish beds, stream reaches, and the like. The GMA mandates regulation of development to protect the ecological functions of critical areas using “best available science.” But it also mandates the accommodation of growth, without acknowledging that the best available science is clear that these mandates cannot be accomplished together—at least if protecting functions and values is interpreted to mean “no net loss,” as state agencies have articulated the standard. Furthermore, the GMA does not require that planning for land uses be connected to the water needed to support them. Disconnecting land and water uses and relying on the fiction that all ecological functions can be protected as growth continues avoids the hardest land and water management choices that a regional conservation strategy must make to succeed over the long term. These are

• Where should new human land uses and water withdrawals be avoided or strictly limited to protect the most important characteristics of regional ecosystems?
• Where should environmental losses be allowed because of growth?
• Where should restoration be targeted to mitigate for these losses?
• To what degree should that restoration restrict or eliminate existing human land uses?
• How should owners of land and water rights be compensated for limits on both new and existing uses?