Trying to comply with GMA: Planning staff’s workload is keeping citizens on hold

JAMES GELUSO, Skagit Valley Herald


Matt Wallis / Skagit Valley Herald
Skagit County, WA - 4/7/02 - Tom Karsh has a list of things to do. There are 68 items on that list. None of them is quick or easy to do. All of the items are things that someone wants done. The Legislature and courts have mandated dozens of tasks to bring the county in compliance with the state’s Growth Management Act.

In the background, residents of 16 villages and rural areas are waiting for the county to revise the plan for their area, allowing much more local control over their communities.

But for Karsh, director of Skagit County’s Planning and Permit Center, it doesn’t matter who wants a refinement to an ordinance or a neighborhood plan for a corner of the county. All that matters is what the deadline is and how much money it will cost.

Some of the pressure was taken off Tuesday when Gov. Gary Locke signed a bill that moved the deadlines on some issues from Sept. 1, 2002, to Dec. 1, 2005. But there are still plenty of deadlines to meet, mostly those imposed by the courts and hearing boards.

“Honestly, those are more than able to fill our staff’s time for the rest of the year,” he said.

The county’s planning department has so many tasks before it — 31 items demanded by the Legislature or courts and 37 more requested by residents or county officials — that the items have been prioritized into a list that will keep the staff busy at least into 2008.

Planning can be costly

To take a big bite out of that list this year would have cost nearly $1 million in taxpayer money. And most of those items would simply be to resolve issues demanded by the state or the courts. Often, landowners can be left in limbo, uncertain what they will be allowed to do with their land, while the county tries to craft an ordinance suitable to the courts.

“I think that the hard decisions will be for the commissioners to decide what items on that list we just can’t get to this year,” Karsh said. “And frankly it’s most of them.”

Although Karsh oversees a staff of about 33 people, only about six actually have time to work on planning issues. The rest largely work on fulfilling requests from people who want permits, a job that has become more time-consuming in recent years as environmental and procedural rules have become more complex.

Each planning task costs money to accomplish, whether it’s a mere $15,000 for a planning process or hundreds of thousands of dollars to write a large-scale plan and then defend it in court. But like every other county department, the planning department says it doesn’t have enough money.

And while the state continues to impose work on the department, landowners around Skagit County are waiting for a chance to work on what are called “sub-area” plans — more detailed comprehensive plans for their own neighborhoods. Often, they need those plans to correct what they say were poor judgments made in creating the countywide plan, which was adopted in 1995.


Waiting his turn

Ken Howard is president of the Association of Skagit County Landowners and one of the people waiting for a sub-area plan. He owns about 40 acres on south Fidalgo Island that he purchased in the late 1980s.

Back then, the zoning in that area allowed four homes for every 10 acres, he said. But when the county adopted a new comprehensive plan in 1995 to incorporate the regulations of the state’s Growth Management Act, the zoning there changed to allow just one home for every 10 acres. That scuttled Howard’s dream of building houses for his children on the land as they grew.

A sub-area plan would allow the county’s planners to take a closer look at the unique circumstances of small areas around the county, said Gary Christensen, the county’s assistant planning director. Many features and areas were just too small to warrant much attention when the county’s main plan, which covered about 1.1 million acres, was completed, he said.

Sub-area plans also allow local landowners and residents to be more involved in shaping their corner of the county, Christensen said.

The planning department has 16 such plans slated for the next six years. Of those, the South Fidalgo Island plan is expected to be the most costly, because it is expected to be among the most contentious and therefore the most time-consuming. While some residents, like Howard, want to be able to build houses, other residents want to keep the area as undeveloped as possible.

Emotions surface

Land-use issues can be emotionally charged and difficult to resolve, Christensen said, and people are passionate about it because it directly affects their quality of life and the value of their property.

“When you get involved in these processes, there are no two minds alike,” Christensen said. “It’s kind of like asking someone, ‘How do you define beautiful?’”

An example of how expensive plans can get is the Similk Beach plan. The planning there wasn’t even a full process, just enough to allow a community sewer system that would address problems with local septic systems and comply with state law, Karsh said. The process still cost the county about $20,000.

Before the planning department can even get to the sub-area plans, though, it has to address mandated issues — things the state wants done soon. In many cases, the county had already examined the issue and created a plan, which was thrown out by the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board or Superior Court. Other issues have to be addressed as part of the county’s timeline to complete tasks required by the Growth Management Act.

With so much work to be done, Karsh asked for an additional person and $1 million in the 2002 county budget. What he got instead was $225,000, of which at least $150,000 was expected to be spent on legal fees. A state grant provided $80,000 to work on some of the projects with shorter deadlines, and the county dedicated $40,000 more, which put the completion of four tasks within sight. That left about $35,000 to work with this year.

More work to consultants

In order to finish the work the staff lacks time to do, the department has turned to outside consultants — specialists in planning issues who can relieve the county’s workload, for a price. Whether that money could be better spent on hiring additional people to work on the projects in-house for less money is open to debate.

The trend in the 1990s was to outsource as much as possible, because government was assumed to be inefficient, Karsh said. But he said he suspects many projects could be done more efficiently and effectively by county staff.

Although consultants do most of the work on their own, they don’t completely free the staff of the burden. They still have to be managed, and that takes staff time and attention, Karsh said.

Some items are better given to consultants than others. Defending the county’s plans and policies in court, for instance, has been handled by a Seattle law firm, Buck and Gordon, because those lawyers have far more expertise than anyone on the county staff, he said. But, he said, he hopes to wean his department away from that firm by relying more on John Moffat, the county’s chief civil lawyer.

Some elements of the comprehensive plan can be handled by consultants without too much problem, Karsh said, while other elements, like the county’s unified development code, should be handled in-house by the people who will have to interpret and enforce it.

Short-term solutions

There are advantages to having consultants do the work, Christensen said.

“We have a saying: ‘Consultants work evenings, weekends and holidays,’” he said. That can make them more effective at meeting deadlines, he said.

In addition, adding a new employee is a long-term financial commitment unless the county is willing to hire and fire them rapidly.

“If it’s a project of limited duration, it’s probably more cost-effective to use an external consultant rather than bring in an employee and have those long-term issues,” said Brad Whaley, the county’s finance director.

Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt agreed. The county often relies on short-term grants to get some of these projects done, he said.

“Long-term, because of the budget constraints, I think it’s ill-advised to hire staff if we don’t have a solid source of funding to keep them,” he said.

There is some relief possible for people waiting for sub-area plans, though — they can pay for the work themselves. Karsh said people in the private sector who wanted a sub-area plan could pay for the consultant, or an election could be held to see if residents would be willing to tax themselves to get the work done.

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