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New survey highlights possible cuts to red tape for Washington housing construction

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(The Center Square) – Local government and building industry advocates have been looking for ways to reduce regulations around housing construction in an effort to boost the supply and cut down project costs.

The Building Industry Association of Washington has now released a survey of cities and counties regarding local planning that has inspired potential legislation for next year’s session.

Local planning by cities and counties is guided by a variety of elements, including permitting, impact fees and possible zoning changes. Impact fees are imposed by local governments to mitigate the impacts of new construction on infrastructure including schools, roads and fire department services.

The BIAW survey sent out to all 320 jurisdictions in the state received 66 responses that revealed a previously unknown situations both planners and builders face with projects.

The survey inquired of cities and counties how many inspections were required, the number and cost of impact fees, as well as the length of time to process a permit.

According to the report’s author, BIAW Policy and Research Manager Andrea Smith, one of the most startling results of the survey was that often multiple people from the same jurisdiction would respond with different amounts for the same impact fees.

“We don’t think it’s necessarily them doing it on purpose,” Smith told The Center Square. “The impact fee may have changed, because impact fees can change at any time, typically impact fees are expensive and add costs to the construction of new homes. If they are being increased at nearly any time during the year, that has influence on whether homes are built.”

She added, “If you’re looking at potentially building a new house and it’s a $19,000 impact fee compared to $1,000 elsewhere, and that basically decides where you live or build, that will probably have a huge play on that.”

When it came to inspections required before a home could be occupied, paid for by permitting fees, jurisdictions varied widely. King County requires 26 while Spokane County requires just six, according to the survey.

It’s not just cost,” Smith said. “It’s the time as well,” adding that if a home doesn’t pass inspection builders have to “fix the issue and then have it re-inspected again. That takes time and however much time that it is…we can see that has a drastic impact.”

Association of Washington Cities Deputy Director of Government Relations Carl Schroeder told The Center Square that the difference between permitting depending on the jurisdiction “was new to me and an interesting thing I intend to look into further.”

Improving and streamlining permitting processes was the focus of Senate Bill 5290 enacted during this year’s legislative session. Backed by BIAW, AWC, and the Washington State Association of Counties along with other stakeholders, the bill set requirements for when permits needed to be considered complete and processed, depending on the type.

“I think some of the information here is showing why that’s been important,” Schroder said.

Another bill enacted this session related to housing construction was Senate Bill 5412, which exempts residential projects from the State Environmental Policy Act review process if they comply with their local jurisdiction’s comprehensive plan update under the state Growth Management Act. However, that exemption only applies to projects within a city west of the crest of the Cascade Mountains with a population of 700,000 or more.

“Once that’s done…all these residentials projects won’t have to go through that type of permitting,” Schroder said.

Collaborative efforts to reform housing development processes have had to walk a line between reducing regulatory burdens on builders while maintaining local planning authority desired by cities and counties. The BIAW survey noted a lack of consistency between jurisdictions regarding their permit or zoning change processes. Smith said that and the involvement of state agencies in parts of the planning process could be improved through some sort of statewide planning program.

Schroder said the state’s decentralized permitting and zoning change process “makes everything a little different,” but added that “there an inherent desire to keep some of those decisions at the local level.”

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