Washington Legislature enacts Growth Management Act on April 1, 1990.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 5/14/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7759
On April 1, 1990, the last day of a special legislative session, the state House and Senate give final approval to Washington's Growth Management Act (GMA). The law, which Governor Booth Gardner (1936-2013) signs three weeks later (after vetoing some provisions), is part of a growth management "revolution" triggered by voter frustration over the effects of rapidly increasing development, especially in King County and the surrounding central Puget Sound area. The GMA -- including additional provisions enacted in 1991 (and revisions and amendments almost every subsequent year) -- transforms land-use regulation in Washington. It requires the state's largest and fastest growing counties to conduct comprehensive land-use and transportation planning, to concentrate new growth in compact "urban growth areas," and to protect natural resources and environmentally critical areas.

Early Efforts

Traditionally, zoning and land-use regulation was the domain of local rather than state governments. Hawaii, in 1961, and Oregon, in 1973, were the first states to supervise land-use planning on the state level. In the 1980s, as concern increased over the effects of uncontrolled growth, seven other states adopted growth management laws.

In Washington, the Legislature first authorized counties and cities to engage in land-use planning and to adopt zoning controls in 1937, but that legislation and subsequent planning laws made planning and zoning controls optional. With environmentalism a significant political force in the early 1970s, progressive Republican Governor Dan Evans (b. 1925) won passage of landmark laws like the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) -- modeled on the National Environmental Policy Act sponsored by Washington Senator Henry Jackson (1912-1983) -- and the Shoreline Management Act. However, efforts to enact a State Land Planning Act failed, so these new state environmental regulations co-existed with the older optional local planning and zoning efforts.

Voters Demand Growth Management

Many local governments, particularly where growth pressures were strongest, made efforts toward growth control. As far back as 1964, King County gained nationwide recognition for its land use Comprehensive Plan that relied on written policies to guide land use decisions. After a mid-1970s economic spurt quickened transformation of open space and farms into subdivisions and shopping centers, County voters passed a 1979 bond issue to buy development rights and preserve farmland.

At the same time, County planners were working on a new Comprehensive Plan. Adopted in 1985, the innovative new Plan foreshadowed several aspects of the GMA. It envisioned a pattern of designated urban, rural, and resource (agricultural and forest) land, with rural and resource areas protected from intensive development. Other local governments, such as the City of Bellevue, also adopted some elements subsequently incorporated into the GMA, such as protecting critical areas and coordinating new development with transportation facilities.

Despite these efforts, by the late 1980s commuters in King County and around Puget Sound were sitting in gridlocked traffic. Farms continued to disappear (although more slowly in King County than where no farmland preservation program was in place), open space and wildlife habitat was lost, and surface water runoff and pollution threatened salmon streams. Mainstream voters, who previously had welcomed or paid little attention to new development, began demanding that politicians take action to protect their environment and quality of life. In November 1989, King and Snohomish County voters ousted incumbent county council members, replacing them with growth management supporters.

Joe King and Maria Cantwell

Even before that, Speaker of the House Joe King, a Clark County Democrat, had made growth management a high priority in the 1989 legislative session. However, the House bill died in the Senate, and Governor Gardner vetoed a provision for a Legislature-appointed Growth Strategies Commission to study the issue. The Governor appointed his own Growth Strategies Commission, but King decided not to wait for its final report, due after the 1990 Legislature adjourned.

Recognizing the window of opportunity, King began work on a growth-management bill even before the 1990 session began. The bill was written by six House committee chairs (all of them women), each responsible for aspects under her committee's jurisdiction. Representative (now U.S. Senator) Maria Cantwell (b. 1958) coordinated the complex effort and helped shepherd the GMA to passage.

The drafts were introduced as four separate bills and then combined into one, which the House of Representatives passed on February 15, 1990. The Senate passed the growth management bill two weeks later, but only after amending it significantly. The two houses could not agree on the content of the bill before the regular legislative session ended on March 8, so Governor Gardner called a special session extending through April 1. A conference committee composed of senators and representatives worked to reach an agreement, which came on the last day of the extra session. On the evening of April 1, 1990, the House (by a 72 to 21 vote) and the Senate (by 32 to 16) passed the Growth Management Act. Governor Gardner signed the GMA into law on April 24, although he vetoed 15 of its 89 sections.

The Growth Management Act

The GMA stated:

"The legislature finds that uncoordinated and unplanned growth, together with a lack of common goals ... pose a threat to the environment, sustainable economic development, and the health, safety, and high quality of life enjoyed by residents of this state. It is in the public interest that citizens, communities, local governments, and the private sector cooperate and coordinate with one another in comprehensive land use planning" (1990 Laws).

The Act required counties above a stated population level or rate of increase (and cities within those counties) to adopt growth-management comprehensive plans and implement them through "development regulations." It established 13 "planning goals" to guide the preparation of local plans and regulations. Local governments were to direct most growth into urban areas, require adequate transportation facilities for new development, protect natural resource lands and environmentally critical areas, encourage economic development, and protect property rights.

Despite the strongly stated legislative findings, the 1990 GMA was a political compromise that left many questions unanswered -- as commentators and court decisions noted, the planning goals were often "mutually competitive" (Settle and Gavigan). Some questions were answered when the Legislature added numerous provisions (dubbed "GMA II") to the Act in 1991. Others were left to be decided by the courts and the Growth Management Hearings Boards established by the 1991 legislation to review local compliance with the GMA, or by additional legislation. The GMA has been amended or revised by almost every legislative session since its first adoption.

Sources: 1990 Wash. Laws, 1st Ex. Sess., Ch. 17; Richard L. Settle and Charles G. Gavigan, "The Growth Management Revolution in Washington: Past, Present, and Future," University of Puget Sound Law Review, Vol. 16 (Spring 1993), pp. 867-948; "History of Planning in King County," in 1994 King County Comprehensive Plan (Bellevue: King County Department of Development and Environmental Services, 1994), Technical Appendix F; Jim Simon, "Governor Signs Bill for Control of Growth -- But He Vetoes Section Protecting Developers," The Seattle Times, April 24, 1990, p. D-1.

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