As building applications trickle in, the fight over ‘missing middle’ housing goes on

Olympia passed development regulations last year designed to increase density in neighborhoods with mostly single-family homes.

It was contentious, with one side calling it a handout to developers, the other side calling it a necessary response to a housing shortage. Opponents made yard signs and circulated a petition, supporters rallied a coalition of housing and transportation advocates, environmentalists, builders and real estate agents.

The changes took effect in December, but the fight isn’t over. Next week, the case will go before the state board that rules on issues related to Washington’s Growth Management Act.

“This is the biggest change in land use policy in 25 years, and most people don’t know about it or don’t understand it,” said Judy Bardin, a former member of the city’s planning commission and part of the group that filed the appeal with the Growth Management Hearings Board. “The city is changing so much all at once.”

The plan allows more multifamily housing to be built in low-density neighborhoods, including duplexes, triplexes, fourplexes and courtyard apartments. The city has called this “missing middle” housing, somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of options ranging from single-family homes to large apartment buildings.

So far most of the projects in the works as a result of December’s change are accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, which can be part of a home or a separate structure on the same lot. The city has allowed these since 1995, but used to require property owners to live on site and provide the units with designated off-street parking.

Since December, the city’s planning department says it has received about 10 ADU permit applications, along with one application for a duplex and one to add several duplexes at an existing townhouse development.

Half a dozen other projects including duplexes and triplexes are at the pre-application stage.

While applications trickle in, opponents are predicting a wave of development, with builders demolishing starter homes and replacing them with much larger structures. They accuse city officials of pushing through the changes without sufficient public input.

“What we’re most upset about is the process,” said Jay Elder, former chairman of Olympia Council of Neighborhood Associations.

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A group called Olympians for Smart Development & Livable Neighborhoods filed a petition for review with the Growth Management Hearings Board earlier this year. It asked the board to determine whether city officials violated the State Environmental Policy Act by not preparing an environmental impact statement, and whether the changes are inconsistent with goals and policies in Olympia’s comprehensive plan related to housing.

In March, the board denied the city’s motion to dismiss the review, and took the rare step of granting a motion for summary judgment from the petitioners on the environmental impact statement question.

“The incremental changes resulting from (the new development regulations) may be insignificant, but the cumulative effect on the environment may well be profound,” it wrote. “... Here, it is apparent that the City’s decision was made without full consideration of the possible environmental consequences.”

The board passed on deciding whether to invalidate the changes just yet. A hearing is scheduled for May 23 at Olympia City Hall, and the board will issue a final decision by July 10.

Unless it can’t, thanks to a new law.

House Bill 1923 passed this session of the Legislature and was co-sponsored by Olympia Reps. Laurie Dolan and Beth Doglio. It offers incentives for cities to increase density along the lines of what Olympia did, such as allowing ADUs or multifamily housing near transit. At Olympia’s request, language was added so that such changes are not subject to legal challenges under the Growth Management Act.

What does that mean for pending cases?

“That’s a very interesting question,” said Jeffrey Myers, a lawyer representing the city of Olympia in this case and other civil lawsuits.

Myers said he plans to argue the city’s actions are no longer subject to review by the Growth Management Hearings Board. The petitioners’ lawyer, David Bricklin, said he does not expect HB 1923 to affect this case since it was not in effect when the city approved the changes.

Abby Spegman joined The Olympian in 2017. She covers the city of Olympia and a little bit of everything else. She previously worked at newspapers in Oregon, New Hampshire and Hawaii.