When Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed part of a bill that would have allowed school districts to build outside designated urban growth boundaries, it was like a knife to the heart for rural communities.
School officials throughout the state were thrilled when House Bill 1017 was approved 31-17 in the Senate and 81-15 in the House.
It is not easy getting a bill through our divided state Legislature. So school officials were excited when they thought they finally might get assistance with their ongoing struggle to find land that is both suitable for new school construction and falls within urban growth boundaries.
The issue is that the Growth Management Act of 1990 limits where new development and infrastructure can happen. The law was crafted in response to explosive building throughout the state, and has helped protect against urban sprawl.
We understand the need to carefully plan how communities expand, as well as the need to protect our open spaces.
After all, that is one of the reasons we choose to live in Eastern Washington. We like being surrounded by acres of farmland and sagebrush. We like to see the sunset on the horizon.
But ironically, the policy-shapers on the congested, industry-laden west side of the state don’t appear to trust our judgment.
With population booming, many school districts throughout the state — including the Tri-Cities — are finding it difficult to find suitable land for future schools within urban growth areas.
The part of the legislation Inslee vetoed would have made schools an exception to GMA rules.
We think school construction is different than private development, and should be treated as such.
Finding sites for new high schools can be especially difficult. They require about 50 to 60 acres and city services, unlike smaller elementary schools that can get by on a well and septic system.
In addition, sometimes the available land is too hilly, too far away from homes or too expensive.
Schools districts need flexibility, and the proposed legislation would have provided that as long as county officials agreed to the plans.
Inslee, however, said he wanted more limitations on the size of the pipes going to the schools to prevent new housing developments springing up around the school and tapping into water and sewer lines.
The governor also said he wants school districts to prove they cannot find any other suitable site, and have no choice but to build outside the designated urban growth boundaries.
If school districts could build within the growth boundaries, they would.
Asking them to prove there is no other suitable land available seems like just another bureaucratic hoop to go through.
We understand Inslee’s desire to limit urban sprawl. But after 27 years, it should be expected that a one-size-fits-all regulation will need updating.
Inslee decided to help out Bethel School District build outside its urban growth boundaries, and kept that part of the bill alive. But he vetoed what would have helped rural schools.
He asked the Legislature to redraft the bill and get it to him before the end of the 30-day special session. “I’m very confident that we can fashion a way to do that,” he said.
We hope he is right.
But with lawmakers focused on approving a budget and figuring out how to amply fund education, we won’t be surprised if they don’t get around to tweaking the school siting bill any time soon.
And that’s a shame.