Washington State: 25 Years of Growth Management



by Jason Radtke, Pullman, Washington

The 25th anniversary of Washington State’s Growth Management Act (GMA) was celebrate in late 2015. Adopted in 1990, the Growth Management Act has helped guide development in Washington’s cities, counties, and other jurisdictions.  Twenty-nine Washington counties containing 177 cities are required to use the principles of Growth Management. An additional 33 towns not required to plan under GMA have willingly opted to do so. In general, the GMA has been regarded as beneficial, and nowadays, most states practice some forms of smart growth. This article will explore the history of growth management in Washington, as well as how the state celebrated this auspicious occasion.

The Rise of Urban Sprawl

Starting in the 1960s, and continuing through the 1980s, America witnessed the rise of the suburb. Suburban areas allowed people to live close enough to cities to commute to work, but still granted families a sense of rural living and community. Suburbs were marked by curvilinear streets, cul-de-sacs, and easy highway access. Families chose from a limited selection of housing plans, which created “cookie-cutter” houses with identical floor plans and homeowners’ associations that restricted aesthetic choices, such as paint color, siding type, and landscaping.

Soon, people began to realize that these suburbs were a massive drain on resources. They ate up land at an alarming rate. Lack of nearby services meant that families had to travel by car to shop, bank, and be entertained, which increased demand for fossil fuels and produced more pollution, which in turn created a spike in health care concerns as more people suffered from smog-related conditions such as asthma and allergies. Municipalities felt the strain of trying to keep up with demand for services. By the end of the 1980s, people were looking for solutions to urban sprawl.

The idea of growth management first arose in the 1970s, when Oregon established the concept of urban growth boundaries. Florida followed suit in 1985 with the first actual Growth Management Act. Washington adopted their own policy five years later. But what exactly is growth management?

Growth Management and Comprehensive Planning

During the rise of growth management, folks began looking less at how quickly and easily they could get into their own house and more toward what they wanted from their communities--their municipalities and counties. They started to realize just how inconvenient (and, as gas prices rose, expensive) it was to have to get in the car and drive to the big box store for groceries.

At the same time, governments were struggling to keep up with the demand for services as communities grew at a near-exponential rate. And while housing developments spread, resource lands and critical areas were consumed to meet the demand.

These problems eventually gave rise to the comprehensive plan. As you may well know, the comprehensive plan is the vision and policies local governments develop, through massive amounts of public input, for their jurisdictions. In addition to this vision and policies, the comprehensive plan also provides goals and objectives that the community wishes to meet, for a variety of stakeholders, as well as implementation strategies to help the jurisdiction achieve those goals and objectives.

Another tool that came out of the growth management movement was impact fees, which are assessed to each new development to pay for the services necessary for each new structure. They are used to cover future costs of running facilities and services to newly-developed properties. Not every community uses impact fees, but those that do have found great success with this particular planning tool.

Growth management has been proven effective for solving most of the problems caused by urban sprawl:

  • Cost overruns associated with service provision
  • Protection of critical areas
  • Reduction in maintenance costs for public facilities
  • The preservation of agricultural areas
  • Protection of rural lifestyles for those who prefer rural living
  • Reduction of pollution due to excessive vehicular use
  • Reduction of health care costs (not just from reduced pollution, but also from less traffic accidents, and even due to the ability of emergency services to respond more quickly)
  • Increasing the availability of commercial goods and services

Washington State and the Growth Management Act

As stated previously, Washington was one of the earliest states to adopt some sort of growth management policy. It was obvious by 1990, when the act was passed that a regulatory framework guiding growth was needed. Washington’s population had jumped from 4.1 million in 1980 to 4.9 million by 1990 (Tovar). Neither the state nor its constituent jurisdictions were prepared to regulate the number of people emigrating to the state, and this caused problems regarding competition over land and resources in neighboring communities.

These problems were highlighted in a 1988 report to the state legislature (entitled The Quiet Crisis in Local Governance), and the cause indicated was a lack of properly defined roles for cities, counties, and other jurisdictions, such as Native American tribes and special utility districts. Disputes between these jurisdictions had to be settled through the courts on a case-by-case basis, which was costly and time-consuming.

Most planners were simply trying to keep up, rather than get ahead of the problem. They used the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA), adopted in the 1970s, as a mechanism for guiding growth. Unfortunately, SEPA focused primarily on environmental concerns, which wasn’t very beneficial when looking at the larger picture of managing growth in urban or suburban areas. Sure, wetlands could be protected if they existed where a housing tract was to be built, but SEPA didn’t have any tools for, say, running a water supply line to those houses.

According to the Municipal Research and Services Center, by 1989, “more than half of all Washingtonians lived in unincorporated areas rather than in cities (Tovar).” This issue came to a head, starting that year, as the public became more vocal over problems such as rising property taxes, congestion, and housing costs. Articles published that summer in the Seattle Times by outspoken urban critic Neil Pierce put a spotlight on Washington’s inadequate regulatory framework. A change in the political climate from conservatism to “smart growth” activism also spurred the 1990 legislature to act, despite partisan and regional divisiveness (Tovar). (Eastern Washington, which is mostly rural and agrarian, tends to be more conservative, while jurisdictions west of the Cascades are more urban, progressive, and far more densely populated.)

As a result, Washington’s Growth Management Act, adopted in 1990, was an amalgam of “the centralized, top-down model of Oregon and the decentralized, bottom-up model of ‘planning enabling’ states like Texas and Alabama (Tovar).” This meant that in Washington, population and growth benchmarks had to be met before growth management was required. Washington also differed from Oregon in that three separate regional hearings boards were created for growth management disputes, instead of a single appeals body, which Oregon houses in its capital, Salem.

With this model, the state assumes that the actions of local jurisdictions are inherently valid, and can only be reversed via an appeal to your regional hearings board or the appropriate court, and then only if the jurisdiction’s action was “clearly erroneous.” This approach places a great deal of faith in local jurisdictions managing their own affairs.

Growth Management Ten Years Later

In 2002, a group called the 1000 Friends of Washington wrote a report entitled “The Growth Management Act After More Than 10 Years: Another Look & a Response to Criticisms.” This report discussed the successes of GMA, the actions of and commentary regarding the hearings boards, and responses to criticisms of the Act itself. The author, Tim Trohimovich, AICP, discussed planning before and after GMA passed.

Before GMA, Trohimovich said, planning in Washington had the following problems, some of which have been previously discussed:

  • Local governments had trouble accommodating growth.
  • Local governments lacked adequate funding for infrastructure.
  • Local governments could not address the economics of rural living.
  • There was a lack of consistency between plans and the regulations that governed them.
  • Planning had no standards.
  • No provisions were made for: low- and moderate-income housing; economicdevelopment; accommodating the plans of neighboring jurisdictions; accommodation by the state for local plans, except where shorelines were concerned; local impacts to state and federal highways; and consideration of a community’s facility and service needs, nor how to cover such costs.
  • There were no permitting standards.
  • There were few standards for appeals of planning and development projects.

Mr. Trohimovich also enumerated some of the benefits of planning under GMA:

  • It helped Washington accommodate the state’s largest and most widespread population expansion.
  • GMA added not only people but also jobs.
  • Said employment was widespread as well, with only one county not experiencing employment growth between 1990 and 2000 (Trohimovich, 2002).
  • GMA is recognized nationally as one of the most effective state planning regulatory frameworks.
  • Each new resident used less land for new development.
  • The GMA established standards for development regulations as well as comprehensive plans.
  • The hearings boards provide an efficient and user-friendly method of resolving disputes.
  • Permitting has been streamlined and the process improved.
  • Financing capital facilities have been streamlined and the process improved.
  • Economic development has been improved.
  • Natural resource protection has been improved.

The author goes on to list successes in individual cities and counties. It is an informative and interesting reading for anyone wanting to know more about Washington’s Growth Management process.



GMA at 25

So how did Washington celebrate this silver anniversary for one of its principal planning achievements? The Washington chapter of the APA held a special conference at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma on November 13, 2015. Two panel discussions highlighted this special event--one discussing the past successes and failures of GMA, the other looking forward to the next 25 years. Afterward, there was a gala event.

It’s readily apparent that Washington planners are generally in favor of growth management. The GMA has helped our state prosper, while at the same time promoting proper planning practices. Here’s to another 25 years of smart growth planning!

Jason Radtke is the Assistant City Planner for the City of Pullman, Washington. He serves on the Editorial Board of The Western Planner.


  • Tovar, J. (2014, December 12). GMA at 25: Looking Back, Looking Forward. Retrieved from www.mrsc.org
  • Trohimovich, T. (2002). The Growth Management Act (GMA) After More Than 10 Years: Another Look & Response to Criticisms. Seattle, WA. 1000 Friends of Washington

Published in January 2017