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Climate Change? Affordable Housing? Skagit County Comp Plan Is Getting an Update

By Beverly Faxon

The Washington State Growth Management Act shapes Skagit County’s present and future. Enacted in 1990, the GMA guides cities and counties to plan for population growth while guarding rural areas from unplanned and out-of-control development.

Counties over a specific population (and the cities within them) are required to come up with their individual Comprehensive Plans within the GMA framework to provide a way forward for sustainable growth planning. Every ten years, local governments are required to update Comprehensive Plans to keep them relevant to current issues and responsive to local needs, while upholding the GMA requirements.

2025 is Skagit’s year, which means the groundwork and planning have begun. The GMA mandates that counties involve the public and public feedback in their process.

And that makes sense, because the Comprehensive Plan looks at areas that are near and dear to most of us:  How do we best protect our forests, waterways and farmlands? How to accommodate population growth and provide adequate, affordable housing without encroaching on those rural lands? How do we access resources in ways that are sustainable? Where can developers build? Where can’t they build? How do we ensure clean air and water? How do we maintain a working economy while safeguarding the land and our environmental heritage?

New GMA Component: Climate Change Mandate

For this most recent round of Comp Plan updates, Washington State has also mandated, through HB 1181, that counties must plan for climate change. For the first time, Skagit County is legally tasked with outlining what we must do to both decrease the greenhouse gases that cause climate change, and become more resilient in the face of climate change-induced dangers.

Says Jenn Rogers, Communications Manager for Skagit County,  

“The Climate Planning Element will be broken down into two sub-elements. The climate resilience sub-element will focus on how the County will plan for climate exacerbated hazards such as sea-level rise, increased flooding due to severe weather, drought, and increased wildfires. The Greenhouse Gas Reduction sub-element will set goals and policies to identify ways the County can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and vehicle miles traveled per capita.”

This mandate draws the attention of organizations and individuals throughout Skagit County who have long advocated for the County to consider climate change in its planning. Explains Marlene Finley, President of the Board for Evergreen Islands,

“We are looking for science-informed policy to address and prepare for the climate changes taking place in our environment.”

The mandate also has people on alert because the County’s track record on including climate change planning has not been encouraging. For example, community members advocated diligently, but to no avail, to have the County address sea level rise in the latest Shoreline Management Program (SMP) update.

The Comp Plan update, although not as direct and focused as the SMP update would have been, is the next available option for the County to address the sea rise threat to homes, infrastructure, wetlands and farmland.

Molly Doran, Executive Director of Skagit Land Trust, points out that the challenges of climate change will require attention in every aspect of land use planning,

“Climate change is foundational now, whether we like or not—in transportation, in sea level rise, in the health of pollinators—in every part of life. Because the Comp Plan determines community goals and priorities for land use, climate change needs to be incorporated into everything. It is not just a chapter. Land use and the ecosystem are our life support.”

Affordable Housing Component Now Required

Another important component that will draw the attention of local citizens is affordable housing.

Says Jenn Rogers,

“Affordable housing will also be a large focus for the County during this periodic comprehensive plan update. The State Legislature recently passed HB 1220, which requires counties to plan to accommodate affordable housing. Most of the affordable housing will be accommodated within the four cities in Skagit County, however, the County is responsible for planning for some of the affordable housing in the County jurisdiction.”

The recent controversy over Fully Contained Communities—large housing developments dependent on emission-intensive transportation, serving mostly higher incomes, and built on rural lands—pointed up the importance of GMA-mandated Comp Plans to prevent unsustainable, environmentally-dangerous county sprawl.  

That controversy also brought to the fore the pressing need for affordable housing throughout the County.

Christine Kohnert, affordable housing advocate and member of Home Rule Skagit, notes the importance of planning on all levels for housing,

“Communities, cities, counties, state and federal governments will fail all of us if they do not recognize everyone should have safe shelter; and that every one of these entities is expected to collaborate, cooperate and fairly share responsibility in solving the housing crisis.”

She puts into words the feelings of many county citizens when she hopes that in the Comp Plan updates, the County and the cities can “meet the urgency and scale of County housing needs” while also “keeping growth in urban boundaries to preserve farmlands and woodlands.”

The County Process

The Skagit County Planning Department is tasked with drafting the proposed Comp Plan, assisted by the departments of Public Health, Parks and Recreation, Public Works, Emergency Management and Facilities Management.

The County has hired Kimley-Horn as a lead consultant for the update. Subconsultants for portions of the plan include Cascadia Consulting Group, BERK Consulting, Makers Architecture and Design, Transpogroup, and Facet (formerly DCG/Watershed). Their websites appear at the end of this article.

Cascadia will be the consultant assisting with the climate change component. The women-owned company helped Washington State in developing the GMA climate element, according to a consultant at the recent Anacortes Comp Plan open house. They have also been working with Whatcom, San Juan and Thurston counties.

In addition, the County will rely on information from the Department of Commerce that, according to Jenn Rogers, will provide

“a full climate emissions inventory …, which will be completed in July, to assist with the development of the Greenhouse Gas sub-element.”

She adds, “Planning and Development Services staff and the hired consultants will be providing presentations on each element and on public comments received during public comment periods. The County will be accepting written public comments for approximately a month when each draft comprehensive plan element is available. Planning and Development Services highly encourages the public to attend the meetings to stay informed on the update. All of the meetings are also recorded and linked to the Planning Commission website.”

Role of the Planning Commission

Unlike the Planning Department, the Planning Commission (PC) is not made up of paid and hired County employees. The Planning Commission is an advisory body of County Commissioner-appointed citizens focused on land use policy and regulations.

The Planning Commission has been the subject of multiple controversies in recent years. Chief among the concerns are allegations that the Planning Commission may fail in their role as an objective, fact-based body that is meant to fairly weigh and represent the range of perspectives in Skagit County, and instead reflects an anti-government, anti-regulation bias held by those members who have a voting majority.

Last fall, in a move easily construed as silencing opposing viewpoints, the Commission went so far as to vaguely rewrite their by-laws to allow themselves the power to censure members for “disloyalty” and for “undermining … values the Planning Commission holds dear.”

PC Wields Influence in Update

The Planning Commission plays a major role in the Comp Plan process. The Planning Commission will hold workshops to review and provide feedback to the Planning Department on draft changes to each element of the comprehensive plan. These meetings will be open to the public.

As planning progresses, the Planning Commission role will become even more influential, as it holds public hearings to hear public testimony for amendments to each element of the Comp Plan.

The PC is tasked with reviewing all of the public and agency comments. The  PC will conduct its deliberations and then make recommendations to the County Commissioners on which parts of the proposed update to approve, which to amend, and which to deny. The County Planning staff will likely make its own recommendations, which may differ from the Planning Commissioners.

However, it is not unusual for the Board of Commissioners to follow the recommendations of the Planning Commission, even if those recommendations are contrary to public opinion or to facts presented in the record.

Getting Involved

Public involvement is a required component of the update process—the County must both inform and solicit feedback from citizens. To begin this two-way communication, the County sent out a survey earlier in the spring. An initial round of informative open houses was scheduled for late June. According to Jenn Rogers, meetings have also begun with local stakeholders.

Citizens are encouraged to go to the open houses to learn more about the Comp plan and the process. This is also an early opportunity to voice views about how citizens want the County to approach this key area of planning and policy. The recent Anacortes open house attracted a few dozen people who spoke with the consultants working on the Comp Plan and with two members of the Planning Staff. Upcoming open houses are in Sedro Woolley  and Concrete.

Upcoming open houses are Wednesday, June 26 at the Sedro Woolley Community Center (703 Pacific Street) and Thursday, June 27 at Concrete High School (7830 S Superior Avenue). Both are from 5:30-7:00 pm.

Some residents expressed disappointment that the central part of the County was omitted from initial open houses. The County says they chose not to have an open house this time in Mount Vernon because they are seeking engagement from east county, which is traditionally less engaged—the initial survey mostly attracted responses from central and west county. The second round of open houses in the fall will include one in Mount Vernon.

As the year progresses, it will be important to participate in public hearings as they become available, submit comments whenever they are solicited, and to go on record with the Planning Commission about proposed Comp plan amendments.

Staying Informed

For starters, residents can check the County Comp Plan site, and  sign up to get updates on the Comp Plan process.

The public can keep informed about agendas for upcoming Planning Commission meetings, and attend virtually or in person when possible.

The County says that events will be advertised at a minimum on their project website, Skagit County Facebook page and the Comp Plan email list. Those not connected to one of those three sites may miss Comp Plan news and opportunities to provide testimony or feedback.

The dedication and involvement of both informed private citizens and local organizations are key to a well developed, fact-based Comp plan that will lead toward climate resilience, affordable housing and sustainable land use planning during the next ten years and for future generations. This is our valley. The stakes are high, and we are all stakeholders.

Beverly (Bee) Faxon has lived in Skagit Valley for almost forty years, starting as an organic farmer up valley and finally settling outside of Burlington. She worked most of that time at the Skagit Valley Food Co-op as newsletter editor and also taught journalism at Skagit Valley College and English composition at Edmonds Community College. 

Consultant Groups

Kimly-Horn

Cascadia Consulting Group

BERK

Makers

Transpogroup

Facet

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