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Republicans in Washington Legislature bristle over collapse of rural housing bills

By LAUREL DEMKOVICH, Washington State Standard
Published: February 19, 2024, 6:56pm

Heading into this year’s state legislative session, there was bipartisan support for bills that might’ve expanded housing in rural parts of Washington, including by allowing for more backyard cottages and subdividing of lots.

Now, as the session enters its final weeks, those proposals appear to be dead.

Republicans say Democrats, who have focused heavily on housing legislation over the past two years, are neglecting the need for more affordable homes outside of cities.

Democrats counter that they are responding to concerns about putting too much strain on drinking water supplies and allowing for housing to sprawl in areas where there isn’t enough infrastructure or services to support it.

Republicans also blame the demise of at least two rural housing bills on a single lobbying group: Futurewise, an organization focused on the state’s Growth Management Act, which is designed to concentrate development in urban areas and to preserve open space, among other goals.

“We have an organization in our state that is very uninterested in addressing rural housing,” said Senate Majority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, referring to Futurewise. “We’ve worked pretty proactively in addressing housing in urban areas. It’s very frustrating that we don’t get the same.”

Futurewise executive director Alex Brennan said the red flags the group raises on legislation are shared by partner organizations across the state, though his group is often the one speaking up in the Legislature.

He also said Futurewise wants to find ways to build more affordable housing in rural areas.

“We want an open dialogue with supporters of these bills to find common ground and figure out ways we can work together,” Brennan said. “We take the concerns they have seriously.”

‘Rural areas could become urban’

Two bills at the center of this year’s rural housing debate were similar.

They both would have required most counties to allow detached accessory dwelling units, such as backyard cottages or a converted garage, on all residential lots, regardless of zoning restrictions. The units have to meet some requirements, such as being at most 1,296 square feet and sharing a driveway and water supply with the main house.

Attached units, such as basement apartments, are already allowed across the state, but detached units are not.

The detached accessory dwelling unit proposals had bipartisan support but received significant pushback during public hearings from environmental and agricultural groups. House Majority Leader Joe Fitzgibbon, D-West Seattle, noted that tribes opposed the bills as well. Counties, builders and realtors testified in favor of them.

House Housing chair and bill co-sponsor Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, said he plans to meet with Republican sponsors, Futurewise and other organizations that weighed in on the legislation during the interim to reach a compromise that can pass next session.

“This bill was a pretty big step in the right direction,” Peterson said. “I think we can find a compromise.”

Opponents, including Futurewise, said the bills ignore the state’s comprehensive planning process and would lead to more residents in areas lacking transit, public sewer systems, firefighting services, and other resources to support the growth. Critics also argued that the bills would jeopardize the effectiveness of the Growth Management Act by allowing for sprawl.

One of the biggest concerns Democrats heard about the accessory dwelling unit bills had to do with water, according to Fitzgibbon.

Especially in many rural parts of eastern Washington, water supplies are already strained.

But Rep. Sam Low, R-Lake Stevens, another bill sponsor, said the legislation makes it very clear where drinking water needs to come from and it would not allow for unchecked drilling of new wells.

In the House bill, detached accessory dwelling units must use the same water supply as the main house on the property. In the Senate version, the added unit must follow water supply requirements established in the state building code.

Because the bill doesn’t require the new units to count toward a county’s population growth planning, opponents also worried the proposals could undermine work done to prepare for sustainable growth across the state.

“Rural areas could become urban areas that lack urban services,” Angie Homola, of the environment and climate caucus of the Washington State Democratic Party, told the House Housing Committee last month.

Supporters rejected that argument.

“This isn’t new development,” Low said. “It’s not going to create huge growth in rural areas, but it is going to give people the option for affordable housing.”

Sen. Shelly Short, R-Addy, told reporters last week that there is a way to preserve agricultural and environmental land while building more housing.

“Nothing in any of those bills undo any critical area protections,” she said. “You’re not creating a whole new roads system.”

To address housing in rural areas, Brennan said the Legislature should focus more on increasing housing in urban areas and towns to relieve pressure on rural land and on boosting programs to help new homeowners and those struggling to keep their homes.

Lot splitting bill not making the cut

Another proposal that Republicans say could have increased housing in rural areas would have allowed residential property owners to split their lots into smaller parcels.

The proposal passed the House 94-4 on the first day of the legislative session this year.

But its sponsor, Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, said the bill has stalled in the Senate because the Housing Committee won’t hear it. It’s not currently scheduled for a hearing with just five days left for committees to discuss bills not tied to the budget or transportation.

Barkis blamed Democrats for “picking and choosing” housing policies that work for them and their supporters.

Futurewise’s Brennan said his group didn’t take a position on Barkis’ bill.

A few Republican proposals that could increase rural housing are still alive.

A bipartisan bill sponsored by Braun would expand property tax exemptions for accessory dwelling units to all counties if the units provide low-income housing. Current law allows only King County to exempt these units from property taxes.

Another proposal still in play would allow rural counties to tap local sales and use taxes reserved for public facilities to help pay for affordable housing.

“We’re trying to take a bite of this apple every way we can,” Rep. Mike Steele, R-Chelan, said.

The Washington State Standard is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet that provides original reporting, analysis and commentary on Washington state government and politics. We seek to keep you informed about Washington’s most pressing issues, the decisions elected leaders are making, how they are spending tax dollars and who is influencing public policy.

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