Futurewire Newsletter

Spotlight on Sprawl: We don't like this surprise

by Tim Trohimovich, Director of Planning & Law

Three Washington State Metropolitan Areas that Stand Out

While the national trend is that people are moving back to the cities, three Washington state metropolitan areas are unfortunately bucking that trend. This spring, three metropolitan areas in Washington State made a select list as one of only 29 metros in the country where sprawl was more likely than infill or brownfield redevelopment. Or put another way, these three metropolitan areas are currently on the path to having more than 40 percent of their population growth projected for 2010 to 2030 being built outside the community’s existing development footprint.

The metro areas that made the list with their national rankings and the percentage of growth projected to be outside already built up areas are:

#7. Olympia metro area, which includes all of Thurston County: 56 percent.

#9. Bellingham metro area, which includes all of Whatcom County: 54 percent.

#24. Kennewick-Pasco-Richland metro area, which includes all of Benton and Franklin counties: 43 percent.

Kaid Benfield’s The Surprising Places Where Sprawl is Still the Building Pattern of Choice ranked the metro areas. Benfield writes that these areas are a “counter-trend” to the main trend. The good news, he wrote, “is that, in an overwhelming majority of US metropolitan areas, well more than half of new construction is taking place in infill locations or as redevelopment of already-built sites.”

This trend is good news given our still recovering economy because it saves taxpayers and ratepayers from increased costs, protects limited natural resource lands, reduces household costs for transportation, reduces commute times, and brings jobs closer to where people live, including where historically disadvantaged populations live. Out of the 381 metropolitan areas in the United States there are only 29 where 40 percent or more the 2010 to 2030 development is projected to be built outside of infill or redevelopment sites. Surprisingly, three of these metro areas are in Washington State.

What is Happening in these Metropolitan Areas

Mr. Benfield wrote that the pattern of the counter-trend in these 29 metro areas “is fascinating.” “The places in America where sprawl remains the predominant building pattern are not the spread-out icons of Phoenix, Las Vegas, Atlanta, and the like. Instead, they are small and medium-size regions in South Atlantic states (particularly Florida), in Texas and the southern Rockies and, perhaps surprisingly, in pockets of the Pacific Northwest. Instead of Phoenix, think Yuma; instead of Las Vegas, think Provo; instead of Atlanta, think Warner Robins.”

Can We Change the Future for These Areas?

Since Benfield’s article looks at projections of future growth, we immediately asked ourselves whether we could change the trend in these communities.

In Thurston County and Whatcom County, over the last few years, we have increased urban densities and decreased the size of urban growth areas (UGAs) – thus making sure that more future growth happened within our existing footprint. This was most dramatic for the Whatcom County UGAs where our work increased densities on 1,713 acres. In the last four years in response to our work, Whatcom County reduced the size of its urban growth areas by 6,241 acres or over ten percent of the total UGA. The County also reduced the capacity of its rural area by 7,620 housing units. This is more homes than in the cities of Ferndale and Blaine combined (a total of 6,992 housing units in the two cities) that will not be built in rural Whatcom County.

Over the last several years Thurston County has continued to reduce the size of its UGAs, excluding forests and critical areas from the areas to be developed, thereby protecting the water quality of Puget Sound. Thurston County also improved the zoning on 9,063 rural acres making sure that thousands of future housing units would instead be focused inside existing urban footprints rather than in rural areas less capable of accommodating the growth sustainably or economically.

Futurewise was also instrumental in Benton County reducing its one acre minimum lot size zone by 1,973 acres and eliminating its 2.5-acre minimum lot size zone, which had included 58,622 acres. These changes reduced the rural land residential capacity by 13,657 housing units, better protecting the rural environment and reducing the impacts of exempt wells on stream flows and agricultural water supplies. We also prevented multiple unneeded urban growth area expansions which would have increased the urbanized areas in the county by over two square miles, including hundreds of acres of farmland and part of the Red Mountain American Viticultural Area, one of the lower Yakima Valley’s economic success stories.

Good, But Not Good Enough

So do these and other efforts to focus growth in our existing cities and towns and to protect our working farms and forests make a difference in Washington State? A new report from the Forest Service says yes, but we need to do more.

As part of its work on assessing the future of forest land, the U.S. Forest Service has been looking at development patterns including growth trends in Washington State. Using digital aerial imagery for 1976, 1994, and 2006, the researchers looked at 44,554 locations in Washington State to measure land use change over time. The study only looked at non-federal land. But that is where most growth and change is occurring. Based on the 44,554 sample sites, they were able estimate changes in forest land, farm land, low-density residential development, and urban growth over time. The estimated land in the natural resource lands categories for each year is shown in the following table.

Definitions: “Wildland forest” is forest land with one or fewer principle structures per square mile. “Wildland range” is rangeland, typically natural habitats used for grazing, with one or fewer principle structures per square mile. “Mixed forest/agriculture” is a mix of agricultural and forest land with one or fewer principle structures per square mile. “Mixed range/agriculture” is a mix of range land and agricultural land with one or fewer principle structures per square mile. “Intensive agriculture” has 80 percent or more of the area in agricultural production with one or fewer principle structures per square mile. The “Total” is the total of all of resource lands.

Sources: Andrew N. Gray, David L. Azuma, Gary J. Lettman, Joel L. Thompson, Neil McKay, Changes in Land Use and Housing on Resource Lands in Washington State, 1976–2006 p. 12 (Gen. Tech. Rep. PNW-GTR-881, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station, Portland, OR: 2013), accessed on May 31, 2013 at: http://treesearch.fs.fed.us/pubs/42975; and U.S. Bureau of the Census State Population Estimates.

This data shows that in absolute and percentage terms, since 1994 we have converted less resource lands than from 1976 to 1994. This is significant because the first Growth Management Act regulations were adopted in the early 1990s. The one exception is “wildland range” where more rangeland was converted since 1994.

To allow a more precise comparison given the different time periods, the last two columns in the table convert the change in resource lands to acres per net new resident, each person who was born in or moved into Washington during the two time periods. This comparison shows a somewhat different story. Since 1994, Washington State has converted less “wildland forest” and “intense agricultural” land than between 1976 and 1994. However, we converted more “wildland range” and “mixed forest/agriculture” since 1994. While the net new resident numbers are small individually, -0.00023 of an acre is ten square feet, they add up since we added 1.6 million residents between 1976 and 1994 and another million residents between 1994 and 2006.

What has happened to our resource lands? Changes in Land Use and Housing on Resource Lands in Washington State, 1976–2006 shows there has been a substantial increase in low-density residential development, increasing from 1.3 million acres in 1976, to 1.83 million acres in 1994, and 2.13 million acres in 2006. However, here the news is better. Over a half million acres of low-density residential land was developed between 1976 and 1994, but that declined to 303,000 acres between 1994 and 2006. Converting these figures to acres per net new resident shows that the development of low-density residential land declined from 14 square feet per net new resident during the 1976 to 1994 time period to less than 13 square feet per net new resident from 1994 to 2006. While this seems like a very small change, spread over the more than a million net new residents in Washington between 1994 to 2006, the reduction results in a savings of 229,000 acres, 467 square miles, not converted to low-density residential development.

Living up to the Jones’ – Or In This Case Oregon.

While Changes in Land Use and Housing on Resource Lands in Washington State, 1976–2006 only covered Washington State, the Oregon Department of Forestry has been comparing land use trends in Washington and Oregon. Some of their data is shown in the following table. As you can see, both in absolute terms and in acres converted per net new resident, Oregon converted much less farm and forest land to development.

Resource Lands
Net New Persons Acres Converted
Per Net
New Resident
Oregon -102,000 526,060 -0.19
Washington -464,000 1,231,742 -0.38

Sources: Personal Communication with the Oregon Department of Forestry, March 18, 2013 and U.S. Bureau of the Census State Population Estimates.

Why does Oregon convert so much less farm and forest land? Oregon has clear, relatively objective state standards for designating and protecting forest land and agricultural land and state agency approval of comprehensive plan and development regulations. Washington’s standards for designating and protecting these lands leave much more room for local judgment and no state agency approves local land use decisions – even major decisions affecting hundreds of thousands of acres - in Washington State.

Oregon also has more specific planning requirements to encourage more compact urban development. These include minimum average densities for the state’s metropolitan areas, “clear and objective standards” for needed housing, and a requirement that at least half of the planned capacity for new residential units must relatively affordable housing types, such as attached single-family housing and multiple family housing unless local conditions require a different mix. The Oregon Department of Forestry data shows that between 1992 and 2006 Washington developed an addition 159,000 acres of urban land while Oregon added 60,000 acres from 1994 to 2005. While the difference per net new resident seems small, 0.11 acres for Oregon and 0.13 for Washington, over tens of thousands of new residents they add up.

The Oregon example is one way we can change our future for the Olympia, Bellingham, and Kennewick-Pasco-Richland metro areas. Another way we can change the future for those metro areas is to continue our work with these communities to better protect agricultural and forest land and to encourage compact and complete cities and towns.


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