Washington Can’t Wait: Empower counties to grow their own climate solutions

Local planning for climate change isn’t required. HB 1099 would fix that. | March 8, 2021

Originally published in Cascadia Weekly, March 3rd, 2021. By Karlee Deatherage (RE Sources), Katie Fleming (Friends of the San Juans), and Tom Glade (Evergreen Islands).

If Northwest Washingtonians have learned anything from the past couple of years, it’s that the changing climate isn’t just hitting the United States’ hurricane-prone coastlines or the arid West. The change is at our doorstep too.

In early September 2020, smoke from historic wildfires blanketed Western Washington. The air quality was so hazardous that kids couldn’t play outside for days. In the winter just prior, Whatcom County was inundated with unprecedented flooding from heavy rains that breached dikes and submerged houses, costing over $4 million.

Don’t worry—this article isn’t about more climate doom and gloom. Right now, an excellent piece of legislation, House Bill 1099, currently moving through the Washington state legislature, will help each community plan for climate change. But lawmakers need support from community members to pass it.

HB 1099 creates local authority in Whatcom, Skagit, and San Juan counties to actively plan for how climate affects each neighborhood, road, and safe and affordable city center. Local authority is critical because climate change looks a little different in every town and on every stretch of shoreline. Local governments need the tools to address the impacts unique to their communities. HB 1099, one of several “Washington Can’t Wait” climate change bills, will ensure cities and counties are planning for climate impacts, such as drought and sea level rise, while addressing housing affordability and environmental justice.

By updating the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA), local governments will be required to adopt comprehensive plans that incorporate new climate change goals. These goals are far-reaching. Every county has a comprehensive plan that outlines goals and priorities for growth, including what can be built and where, and which forests, agricultural lands and shorelines will be protected from unchecked development. While Counties can voluntarily go above and beyond GMA requirements to respond to climate change, they are often starting from scratch without any assistance.

Local planning for climate change isn’t required. HB 1099 would fix that.

Addressing climate change is not a requirement in the existing GMA—a law that hasn’t been updated in 30 years. This is a huge oversight. For example, local governments might allow development in areas that will be inundated by sea level rise, among other climate risks.

Local governments also have unique capabilities to curb emissions because they can encourage new development in areas well-served by grocery stores, parks and other services, reducing the need to drive. HB 1099 will strengthen city centers and encourage density. Urban sprawl is bad for the climate, as it usually forces people to drive more. It’s also more costly for taxpayers, as municipalities have to fund more roads, sewers and other services.

Towns and counties must revisit their comprehensive plans periodically to determine how they will accommodate population growth while balancing environmental protection, natural resources like farmland and forests, the economy, transportation and more. We only have a brief window to make changes to the GMA before Washington’s cities and counties embark on their next comprehensive plan updates, which often lock in policy for the next decade or more.

“Mother Nature doesn’t give you points for participation or an A for effort. We really have to tackle this sooner, not later,” state Representative Davina Duerr, HB 1099’s lead sponsor, recently told InvestigateWest.

Sea level rise is a pressing issue in our region, especially in San Juan County and the low-lying Skagit River Delta. Sea level rise will increase flooding in our cities, shoreline erosion, and seawater intrusion into groundwater.

In San Juan County, winter high tides already lap over some roadways, leaving virtually no shoulder. In Skagit County, the chance of a high tide coinciding with a flooding river is increasing. Seawater already backs up from Skagit Bay nearly to Mount Vernon during high tides. Passing HB 1099 will help communities address the issue of sea level rise as counties plan where they can build buildings and future transportation infrastructure.

When the GMA passed in 1990, the focus was on appropriately managing Washington’s surging population growth and protecting our farmlands that were being paved over. Now, Washington needs improved growth management for the 21st century.

House Bill 1099 is part of the aptly named Washington Can’t Wait campaign, which prioritizes legislation that will update the GMA for today’s challenges. The GMA and statewide comprehensive planning must address climate change because our communities are already experiencing its negative impacts. Please take action and urge our lawmakers to plan for our counties’ future now by visiting futurewise.org/1099

Photo: David Inscho