Op-Ed

A ‘sustainable’ Thurston County needs wise use of land

The Sustainable Thurston Plan was the most inclusive, data intensive study and community conversation ever undertaken in this region. A major finding was that where and how we build as we grow will determine how well — or if — we will achieve the clean water, air and sustainability that residents said was critical to them.

By early 2014 the Sustainable Development Plan for the Thurston Region was approved by 29 public, private and non profit partners including all the jurisdictions in the region. See www.trpc.org/259/Sustainable-Thurston.

During the process alternative futures were identified and the consequences measured for how each would achieve the goals and measurable targets identified for land use, transportation, housing, clean air and water, energy conservation, decreased greenhouse gas emission, health, food and other interconnected issues identified as important to a sustainable future.

Over 25 years, an estimated 55,000 housing units (the equivalent of all existing Olympia, Lacey, and Tumwater housing units combined) will be needed to house the Thurston region's growing population.

Under current adopted comprehensive plans, 13 percent of those units (over 7,000) would end up in county areas on septic systems resulting in the addition of more nitrogen to ground and surface water than the remaining 48,000 new housing units on sewers in cities and towns (assuming all the new rural area septic systems were maintained and well functioning over time).

Rural area growth on septics is the major threat to clean water and Puget Sound and would also result in loss of 32 percent of existing farmland, and 10 percent of forest lands in county areas. Our region would bear the added burden of increased public services including law enforcement, fire, emergency services and road maintenance and spend $1.6 billion on new road, utility and other related infrastructure expense needed to support scattered rural area development.

The Sustainable Thurston Plan is based on the goal of building 95 percent of new development in cities and towns and their urban growth areas. This more efficient use of land over 25 years will achieve state and Sustainable Thurston goals for greenhouse gas emissions — with no net loss of farmland; no net loss of forest land; stream basins and Puget Sound protected; as well as many other benefits related to social, environmental and economic goals.

Significant land use actions are needed to achieve this sustainable future. Lacey, Olympia and Tumwater have completed master plans and development strategies in city centers. Cities and towns must actively work with the development community to locate housing and commerce that meets zoning and development regulations. The result will be more housing opportunities for a full range of incomes and ages to achieve the thriving, healthy, mixed income city centers, transit corridors and neighborhoods described in the sustainability plan as well as in local comprehensive land-use plans.

In neighborhoods and along transit corridors, wise use of land will depend on city success in building many more types of housing units – duplex, triplex, fourplex, accessory dwelling units, cottage housing, tiny houses, townhouses and small apartment complexes in some areas. This increase in housing supply will help curb the rapid rise in housing costs we are experiencing. In addition more infill in neighborhoods will support increased transit service and – with enough housing – close by neighborhood services.

Without substantial changes in our ability to use land more wisely we will erode our ability to reach any of the Sustainable Thurston goals and targets identified. The key is to focus development where we have already developed, reuse existing buildings, and take advantage of empty lots or unused land in cities and towns for new housing and commerce.

Our region was given an unprecedented opportunity through the Sustainable Thurston Plan process to define our future and identify the steps necessary to get there. We ignore what we know at our peril.

Kathy McCormick of Olympia retired from the Thurston Regional Planning Council upon the completion of the Sustainable Thurston Plan.

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