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Olympia hasn’t given up on missing middle. But it also has a backup plan.

Following a series of losses in a fight over development regulations aimed at promoting more density and housing options, the city of Olympia says it will now take its case to court.

But it is also working on a plan B.

The state’s Growth Management Hearings Board last week denied the city’s motion for the board to rescind its order invalidating the regulations along with a motion to dismiss the case. The city now plans to appeal in Thurston County Superior Court.

“We were disappointed but not surprised that the Growth (Management) Hearings Board didn’t rescind their decision,” said City Manager Steve Hall. “We thought it was clear that they lacked jurisdiction, and so they found a way to continue to hang on but we think they’re wrong.”

The regulations, which went into effect late last year, are commonly referred to as the “missing middle” changes. They allowed for certain multifamily housing types to be built in low-density neighborhoods depending on their current zoning.

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A group called Olympians for Smart Development & Livable Neighborhoods challenged the regulations before the state board, which over the summer invalidated the regulations after finding the city failed to comply with the state’s Growth Management Act by not anticipating impacts on the environment, public facilities and services.

The state board also agreed with petitioners that the changes went against parts of Olympia’s comprehensive plan by increasing density.

The city argued new legislation that went into effect in July eliminated the board’s authority to hear this appeal. But in its ruling last week, the board said it was not clear if that legislation applied to this case since Olympia’s regulations passed before the legislation.

House Bill 1923 offered incentives for cities to increase density and housing types along the lines of what Olympia did. At Olympia’s request, language was added so that such changes would not be subject to appeals under the Growth Management Act.

The City Council this week asked its planning commission to get started on a new set of regulations that would comply with the law.

“It will be something that will achieve many of the same goals but won’t have that same level of a tailor-made approach,” Hall said. “But it will allow the housing types that the (City Council) believes will start chipping away at the housing affordability crisis we’ve been seeing.”

Olympians for Smart Development & Livable Neighborhoods faults the city for spending money on an appeal rather than working on changing the regulations.

“We had legitimate concerns, our concerns weren’t trivial,” said Judy Bardin, a member of the group. “We’re not opposed to having infill in the neighbors, we just want them to work with the neighborhoods to come up with a plan that works with the neighborhoods and considers the environmental impact.”

Bardin said adopting HB 1923 as a blanket solution wasn’t a good idea. She suggested instead the city modify the missing middle plan to comply with the Growth Management Hearing Board’s rulings.

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.
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