Regulatory Reform a Decade Later: Less Rules or More for a Sustainable City?


While Googling about to see what regulatory reform Seattle City Council finally passed yesterday (Cienna Madrid sums it up here), I stumbled on a 1994 Seattle Times op ed by Kathy Fletcher who was then head of People for Puget Sound cited then as “a 15,000-member citizen organization working to protect and restore Puget Sound and the Straits.” The topic of the opinion piece was about regulatory reform not as a tool for sustainability, but as the opposite.

What’s happening here? If the rules are too cumbersome, but the environment is sick, the problem certainly isn’t that we’ve gone too far in environmental protection. We obviously haven’t gone far enough. But say that to a land developer or a small-business person and be prepared for a heated response about the paperwork, the inconsistency, the complexity, the you-name-it about what it’s like to be on the regulated end of the stick

What a difference a decade makes. Many of us today see local government, especially here in Seattle, as the biggest stumbling block to making the city truly sustainable, especially with it’s hand wringing process and path-of-least-resistance approach to dealing with neighborhood opposition to growth. Back in the 90s government and rules were seen as the bulwark against rapacious efforts to buck the Growth Management Act, rather than an obstacle to growing smart.

I remember those days well. As a lobbyist in Olympia for school board members I can remember trying to get a fix to the statute on how impact fees worked for school construction. Many times growth was happening in areas of a school district–especially in unincorporated parts of growing counties–where there were no impact fees. The developers, then led by a brilliant lobbyist named Dick Ducharme, squashed every effort to allow school districts to collect impact fees for school construction in these areas. We never got a bill out of committee.

I remember their argument well. “Add impact fees and all that will happen is”–wait for it–“you’ll just increase the costs of housing!” All those new costs will just get passed on, they said, to the poor unsuspecting family trying to close a deal on their first home. “Cry me a river,” I thought back then. I found the line of argument to be ridiculous. New people moving in to a community needed to pay for infrastructure, I thought then, impact fees would allow them to fix old schools and build new ones. But the “Big Developers” killed our plan.

Today, I am a supply sider when it comes to housing. I might very well be sitting next to Ducharme today saying some of the same things, but about housing in the city. The problem then, was that developers were fighting regulation in the suburbs and the housing type in question were McMansion sprawlers with two garages, not condos and apartments.

And today, many of us are trying to make many of the same points Big Developers made then; you can’t lower housing price while simultaneously increasing the costs to build it with a myriad of rules and regulations. Maybe Mr. Ducharme will come out of retirement and give urbanists a few political tips about how to unravel the mess of code we’ve created here in Seattle that makes new development a gauntlet of process, rules, and costs fought out parcel by parcel, lot by lot, and neighborhood by neighborhood.

One of the fascinating aspects of getting older is finding oneself saying the same things one once opposed.

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One Response to Regulatory Reform a Decade Later: Less Rules or More for a Sustainable City?

  1. Pingback: South Lake Union: More Spontaneity Can Mean More Jobs - Seattle Transit Blog

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