A sustainable future is the right choice to make

The OlympianDecember 29, 2013 

A conversation started in this community three years ago with a question directed at the 258,000 people who call Thurston County home: How do you want the community to look, function and feel 20 years from now?

Online and in person, thousands of citizens took a stab at answering the question, sharing their hopes and concerns about the economy, the environment, land use, housing, transportation and all the other facets of a community.

Remarkably, there was consensus on two critical facts: First, there was a concession that existing land-use regulations, despite the good intentions of the 1990 state Growth Management Act, have not done enough to curb sprawl and promote vibrant urban centers. Without a midcourse correction, a third of the county’s farmlands and 10 percent of its forestlands would be lost to development by 2035 as the county grows by another 120,000. And the infrastructure needed to serve a spread out populace would add a financial burden to taxpayers and local governments estimated at $1.6 billion.

Second, the participants reached agreement on a definition of sustainability for the region. They said: “A sustainable community will enhance quality of life, foster economic vitality and protect the environment while balancing our needs today with those of future residents.”

This is a bold, but pragmatic vision. Bold because it directs 95 percent of the region’s growth by 2035 into urban areas. Bold because it calls for a 30 percent reduction in vehicle miles traveled, using 1990 as a baseline. Bold because it recommends less paving and more preserving, less per capita energy and water consumption and more resource conservation and waste reduction.

At the same time, the vision of a sustainable Thurston County is pragmatic because it does not try to limit or stop growth. It accepts the official growth projections for Thurston County, which suggest the county population will grow by nearly 50 percent in the next 20 years. But what makes it different from other land-use plans is the assumption that the community will agree on ways to accommodate all those people without gobbling up a lot of land.

It’s a lofty goal for sure. It will require a tremendous amount of buy-in and cooperation between local governments, the business community, environmental groups and everyday citizens. To avoid a private property uprising in the rural areas of the county, property owners will have to be properly compensated through purchase and transfer of development rights, two land-use tools that have not been used to their potential in the past. And in the urban centers and corridors targeted for new development and higher densities, expect some resistance from residents who like their neighborhoods just the way they are.

The sustainable development plan for the Thurston region is called “Creating Places, Preserving Spaces.” The three-year planning effort was coordinated by the Thurston Regional Planning Council and supported by a $1.5 million federal grant. The 232-page document council staff produced includes 12 priority goals and targets and 370 actions that need to happen to achieve the goals. Some are the responsibility of local governments. Some are assigned to the business community. Many require multiple partners to complete.

Getting to this point was a lot of hard work, but nothing compared to what it will take to turn the plan into action.

Check out the new sustainability plan for Thurston County at sustainablethurston.org.

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