HB2412 Buy Clean Washington Act

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Last Thursday, which was the last day of legislative session I drove down to Olympia to try meeting one of my legislators or one of their legislative assistants without having an actual appointment.

I got a chance to talk to Curtis Knapp, who is legislative assistant to Representative Nicole Macri about the House Bill 2412 which is referred to as the “Buy Clean Washington Act”. The bill and its affiliated substitute bill aim to reduce the quantities of emissions that are released during the manufacture and transport of products that are used in public construction projects. In this vein, a maximum acceptable embodied carbon value should be set for every eligible material (steel, cement, timber, solar panels, glass, aluminum, refrigerant, gypsum and concrete). The maximum value should be set by an average of available environmental product declaration (EPD) data.

At first, I expressed my support for the bill considering that estimated 22% of all global emissions that contribute to climate change are embedded in the supply chain and that are attributable to manufacturing. I definitely think that it is step in the right direction to track embodied carbon emission and incentivize the reduction of it by excluding products that embody to much carbon from public construction projects.

Washington manufacturing facilities use a lot of green energy and have historically invested a lot in innovations that reduce energy consumption in the production process. This is why I think that the bill could strengthen local businesses and reward them for their effort in going green.

In a second step, I spoke about concerns I had with the bill and how I think it could be improved

  • The EPD alone is not a good measure for the full life cycle cost of a product. It follows a cradle-to-gate assessment rather than a cradle-to-grave assessment. Certain parts of the product life cycle that come to pass after manufacturing are excluded from the EPD analysis which can lead to adverse effects of the bill. For example, it is possible that a product that has a really low EPD score has to travel a way longer distance to get to the construction site than one with a higher score. There would be an incentive to buy the one with the lower score without taking the transportation after production into account.
  • Small business might be adversely affected, who may not be able to meet the requirements of the bill. This could hurt local businesses and put contractors out of compliance. Moreover, it might decrease bids as potential bidders are locked out of the process and by that increase cost.
  • The bill does not really address leakage. It does not address that there is a need to look at origins of where we are extracting our natural resources. It should also address that we look at embodied cost on other levels besides carbon. I am thinking of human suffering or other environmental issues like toxicity of products.

The substitute bill would oblige the UW and the College of Built Environments to check if the EPD approach is a good solution to the problem which is a good approach to make the bill stronger and less attackable in my opinion. What I think is not good about the substitute bill is that some of the eligible products are removed. Glass, solar panels, cement and concrete are no longer subject to the bill which weakens it a lot in my opinion.

Curtis informed me that the bill did not make it out of the committee in this session but that the Representatives Doglio, DeBolt, Macri and Ormsby will likely be sponsoring it next year again and that it would be helpful if I could send him my feedback via email to be able to consider it in the next session.

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Sausage-Making with a Vegetarian: The Trials and Tribulations of Carbon Pricing through the Eyes of Maxwell Armenta

NOTE: I took the liberty to have some fun with this post, and structured it into two distinct sections. The first part (Olympia, WA) describes my trip to the Capitol. It reads more as a narrative with little discussion about my research and action on carbon pricing legislation. The second part (Discussing Carbon Pricing with Fitzgibbon’s Office) walks through my talk with Sarah Tucker, legislative assistant to Joe Fitzgibbon. This section more directly addresses the OPTION B Final Assignment prompt for the RE 598 course.

I breathed in deeply, then exhaled. The sun was warm against my skin, and the air felt fresh. I was sitting outside a Starbuck’s across from the International District/Chinatown Station of the Link light rail, reviewing my notes on the history of carbon pricing attempts made in the state of Washington. I checked my watch and realized I would need to be going soon. I was traveling from Seattle, located in the 43rd District, via a Greyhound bus to reach the state capitol in Olympia.

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A view of Washington’s Legislative Building while passing on a Greyhound bus. The surrounding buildings are placed to act as a visual pedestal for the free standing masonry dome which rises up from between the Temple of Justice and the Insurance, O’Brien, Cherberg, and Pritchard buildings.

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On arrival, I realized that the bus had been delayed. So, as any self-respecting student-on-a-mission would do, I ran as fast as I could, uphill, for five blocks. The last tour of the day was to start at 3 PM from the top of the stairs to the Legislative Building, and I was not going to miss it.

I arrived at the bottom of the 42-stair entrance to the Legislative Building with 5-minutes to spare (I ran track and cross country in high school), and was able to write my name into the visitor book (placing Monrovia, California forevermore into Washington’s state history). The guide, Steven Jones, had previously worked at the Capitol (I believe he was involved in drafting or reviewing budgets, perhaps a role as Budget Counsel), and so he provided a lot of insightful and candid information regarding a recent shift in the Senate majority and on a prominent politician (remind me to Speak more about this during our final “out-of-classroom” class).

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After a brief but intense run to the Capitol campus, I stop for a mandatory snapchat selfie with the Legislative Building and Temple of Justice in the background.

During my visit to the Capitol I was able sit in the viewing areas of the Senate and House. I learned that the current Speaker of the House is often not seen on the floor, and is the only person in Washington’s House of Representatives that is allowed to vote from his office. An interesting fact learned about the Senate is that the Lieutenant General, Cyrus Habib, is blind and thus the Senate conducts verbal votes. (A verbal vote takes approximately three minutes to complete. In the House, electronic voting takes only 45 seconds to complete.) The Washington Senate even has a system where Senators press a button at their desk if they wish to speak in lieu of raising their hands. When the button is pressed, the Lieutenant General is able to read from a braille mechanism to determine who is requesting permission to speak.

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The Chamber of the House of Representatives. This room is never locked and is always open to the public. The electronic screens seen in the image above display the names of each representative. As they vote, names change from white to either green or red as they vote.

On concluding my tour, I requested to speak further with our guide, retired public servant, Steven Jones. I told him my reason for coming and that I am interesting in understanding why a carbon tax was not passed this year through SB 6203. Steven, said, among other things, that the tax was likely not passed for the reason that most tax bills are not passed: no one wants to adopt a law that will create more taxes. I refuted that this bill was analyzed to be revenue neutral, and that this would likely be a tax cut for many individuals and perhaps even businesses (especially during early years of adoption). Steven still said that regardless of what is projected to happen, any piece of law which either introduces or alters taxation will be hard to pass because the public is always skeptical about anything to do with taxation. He went on to explain that there are many “roadkill” representatives in the legislative branch in Washington (a term used to describe representatives of districts that are split evenly along party lines), and so a vote for a new tax could be the “car” that runs them over. The reality of the difficulties associated with introducing a tax, regardless of its intent or public benefits, was a valuable lesson for me to learn, and one that came up again later in the week.

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The Legislative Building taken just prior to the start of the 3 PM tour. The dome on top looks black due to lichen growing in the sandstone (despite routine cleaning and sealing of the exterior). During the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, the dope lifted up and rotated 3 inches. After the earthquake, the Capitol building was reinforced and the base of the dome has been anchored to the building.

Discussing Carbon Pricing with Fitzgibbon’s Office (34th District)

The next day, Tuesday, March 13th 2018, I called in to Representative Joe Fitzgibbon’s office at 2 PM. I had scheduled a phone meeting with a key staff member of his: Sarah Tucker. After striking out on securing a meeting with any of the 43rd District’s representatives or staffers, I had turned to calling and emailing all sponsors of HB 2230 (a carbon pricing bill introduced mid-2017, with Joe Fitzgibbon as it’s primary sponsor). My talk with Sarah was very productive, and lasted 20 minutes.

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Response from Sarah Tucker from my day-of check-in regarding our scheduled 2 PM call. Provided to show her email signature as a proxy for a business card of the representative.

I started the conversation by introducing myself, my district and background, and the reason for my call–to discuss the language in both SB 6203 and HB 2230 that I took issue with.

Annual Tax Percent Increase

I started by discussing how both the senate and house versions of the bill proposed annual increases with inflation in addition to a 3.5 percent and 7 percent increase, respectively. I stated that a linear increase did not make sense to me, as growing pains should be most difficult in the beginning, but that there should be an expectation that in five to ten years that companies would be able to more rapidly adjust. Therefore, I proposed that a rate more closely resembling exponential increase should be used for annual pricing increases (capped at a certain amount or growth rate, of course).

Sarah responded by saying that Program Research writes bills, and so they have better working knowledge on how the language works and why a flat percentage increase is used; however, she said that exponential increase would be a tough sell for taxation. Sarah mentioned that voters are hesitant to pass any form of taxation (echoing what Steven had emphasized the day before), but went on to say that Commerce reviews what the tax is levied at and has the ability to make adjustments if goals within the bill are not being met. Therefore, while my concern of a flat percentage increase not being enough was legitimate, there was indeed language in the bill which could remedy my worries in a way that is more palatable to voters than language stating “exponential increase.”

Water You Talking About?

My next question was on the heavy emphasis that both the House and Senate version of carbon pricing bills had on allocating revenue to protecting water bodies. As an environmental engineer, I have a vested interest in promoting more water projects and for protecting our natural and potable water bodies; however, regarding this type of policy I found it difficult to justify the connection between a carbon tax and protecting watersheds.

Sarah told me that water rights are very important historically to both western and eastern Washington residents, and that preservation of water is very important for any policy around climate change because it is a high priority for many stakeholders and interested parties. So it sounded like that although I may still not agree with the decision for carbon pricing policies to reallocate tax revenue to water body protections (although I do believe that protecting natural water bodies is a fundamental responsibility of our nation and citizens), it is necessary to include language around protecting water rights and water management if the policy wishes to receive support from various environmental groups.

Where do we go from here?

I decided to close my conversation with Sarah by asking where their office plans to go from here–as an initiative has already been proposed, and the Senate version of a carbon tax bill was rejected this year.

Sarah said that she could not comment on the initiative, but that Joe Fitzgibbon’s office would support any means of putting a price on carbon, and that if policy was not established during the 2018 year, that they would be putting together another House bill in 2019.

Sarah continued on to say that carbon pricing was not the only avenue that Fitzgibbon’s office was using to address climate change. Low-carbon standards in fuel, modeled after a law in California that went into effect in 2009, is one way they wish to make change. According to Sarah, California has been effective in incentiving clean energy in the transportation and energy sector, and it is very impressive. Washington, unlike California, produces most of its energy from hydropower, so there is less room for improvement emission-wise in that sector. Therefore, the automotive industry is the dirtiest industry in Washington and needs the most help in transitioning to clean fuel.

This year, the aviation industry (along with others) provided very neutral feedback to carbon taxation, whereas in past years they were very negative toward any form of carbon pricing. This is a positive sign of shifting views of industries toward climate change. It is now being seen as an inevitable consequence, and it will be cheaper to make gradual changes to business practices now as opposed to drastic changes in the future.

Concluding Remarks

Sarah Tucker spent a lot of time discussing my ideas and talking through what the future of carbon pricing and climate change policy may look like in Washington. At the end of the conversation she let me know that I could email her at any time if I had further questions about the nuances of carbon policy. I really appreciated her time and learned a lot from our talk. Furthermore, I am energized to continue the good fight and to see that carbon taxation is implemented swiftly and effectively in this state within the next two years. I am still in open communication with Frank Chopp’s office through Cindy, his legislative assistant. My current goal is to become more informed on this issue and meet with him at his district office. I encourage anyone reading this post to also become engaged in leading the fight against climate change by voicing your opinion on (1) why it is important to implement carbon pricing and/or carbon reduction policies and (2) what solutions and language we need to see in our cities’, states’, and nation’s policies.

 

Visiting Olympia To Talk About Urban Revitalization

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I am interested in the Second Substitute Senate Bill 5135 (2SSB 5135) since it is touching the topic about urban renewal and redevelopment in the aspect of revitalize the street. As a landscape architect, I am used to focus on improving the physical environment in order to activate a place. However, after more studies and practices, I gradually realize the important of other strategies beyond design, such as policies and programs. In this sense, I drove to Olympia on March 5th, 2018, to visit Frazier Willman, executive assistant to Senator Joe Fain, who is one of the legislators of 2SSB 5135.

The first reading of SB 5135 is on Jan. 13th, 2017 referred to Agriculture, Water, Trade & Economic Development. The original bill is related to modifying the Washington main street program by increasing the total amount of tax credits allowed under the program and making administrative changes to the program. After several time of Public hearings and Executive actions, on Feb, 9th, 2017, the first substitute bill is substituted and pass. On March 30th, 2017, the second substituted bill be substituted and pass. On May, 2nd, 2017, the second substitute bill is substituted. Now it is in the Senate and waits on Governor’s Desk.

The language, which I am interested in the bill, reads that application for tax credits under this chapter must be submitted to the department before making a contribution to a program or the main street trust fund, and the application must contain information regarding the proposed amount of contribution to a program or the main street trust fund, and other information required by the department to determine eligibility under this chapter. It is important to know the proposals and plans of the applicants in order to decide whether it is possible to give them the tax credits. However, the bill doesn’t give clear criteria both for contributions and rewards, such as how many contributions should provide and how many tax credits could get back. Moreover, the bill also does not consider the hidden value behind the proposed economic benefits. For example, an attractive private or semi-public program or space such as gallery or community workshop will attract more people and bring more economic benefits to other businesses such as restaurants, retails or bookstores. But as a private program or business, it is hard to evaluate whether its own business could bring to others in the street as a business network. In this sense, the bill should take this relationship into consideration in order to provide a better condition for revitalization.

The legislation’s assistant comments that people like to see the improvement of the streets while stakeholders are also willing to do so with the tax credits. Speaking of the standards of tax credits, he mentioned that it is a complicated work cooperating with the other agencies and modifying many times back and forth during the process of testing, because just as I mentioned before it is hard to evaluated the some possible or hidden values just based on the experience and data.

He also mentioned that he is not professional enough to talk about the issue relating to the way to set the tax credit standards based on data collections, analysis and other methods. But he could set a phone call with me with a member of staff who would be able to talk about these issues the next Friday considering it is the last week of session and staff is focused on wrapping the session up on Thursday.

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Climate Lobby Day with Youth Lead The Way

On February 19th, I went down to the Olympia and participated an activity which organized by 350 Seattle and one organization named Youth Lead The Way. The activity was hosted a climate lobby day and proposed the pledge for legislators to sign about the solutions which they proposed facing problems caused by climate change.

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The event started around 10 am in the morning. First, everyone stood in front of the building holding lost of slogans. There are several public speeches which given by youth ranging from 4 years old to 16 years old. I was surprised by those teenagers and children that they all understand the emergence of the climate change and actually tried hard to do their best to solve those problems. After that, they organized a march around the xxx building. They came up with some slogans like “FOSSIL FUELS THEY HAVE GOT TO GO! ”

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The afternoon is the time to meet with legislative assistants. The organization made an appointment with 4 legislative assistants in advance. We gathered around 1 pm. One student leader gave everyone an orientation lecture about the process of the meeting and several tips on how to talk with them. The lecture is very helpful. Then the group was divided into two groups to meet with the legislative assistants respectively. I met with CINDY CHEN who is the assistant of Speaker Frank Chopp. The meeting lasts around 25 minutes. In the first 5 minutes, children from the organization introduced who we are and what we want. And the rest of time, everyone in the group was free to talk with the assistants.

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I was so happy that I participated in this activity that it is a good opportunity for me to learn how to talk with legislators. When the first time I saw this assignment, I was so worried about it that I have no knowledge about the legislative system of America. I don’t know how to talk with them and what I need to say. This event is kind of orientation to students. It was organized by teenagers. I was surprised by those students because of their seasoned performance. Compare with them, I feel shame that I know more knowledge about climate change than them but I do not take any actions in person. By taking to legislators, maybe you cannot actually change anything, but at least, you let them know that you are concerned about it. More people concerned about it, more chance for laws about climate change shows up.

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Besides the organization of the event, I want to talk a little about their proposals.

 

They came up with three pledges:

1. Immediately halts all new fossil fuel infrastructure in our state;

2. Commits Washington state to an economy running on 100% renewables by 2028;

3. Addresses the need to plant 1 billion trees in WA sequester CO2.

Far away from a bill or laws, those pledges are more simple ideas and direct actions. They came up with those staff that everyone can participate in.

As for the meeting. My feeling about it is that legislative assistants are more listening than responding. That is the same as what the student’s leader told me before. Because of children are in the group, legislative assistants listen carefully and in a gentle attitude in order to encourage those children while hardly have a dialogue. This situation is better when we talked to them. When they were facing with adults, their attitude is more serious and responded our words. I also felt that they know the climate change but they do not believe the worse sequence of it. I think more adult should take actions and participate in it.

Also, there also problems in the organization. To be honest, everyone in the group cares about the climate change. But the organization lack of professions as the strong backup force. The organization is focused on the climate issue, it might go further if they have to assist from ecology professions. It will make their pledges stronger.

To sum up, this event is meaningful. Instead of its effects on climate change, the educational influence is much more significant. I can expect when those teenagers grow up with more knowledge and power, they will push the improvements of policy.

Youth Lead the Way | One Day In Olympia

On February 19, I had the opportunity to participate in the Youth Lead the Way event in Olympia, learned with children and youth from across the Washington state about how to express thoughts to legislators, and I got the opportunity to express my idea about solutions for climate change, to Miss Cindy Chen, the Executive Legislative Assistant to Speaker Frank Chopp.

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Before I participated in this event, I thought it would be a “sitting-in-a-conference-room” type of event. However, when I arrived at the Washington State Capitol Campus and saw children and youths gathered on the steps, holding banners and posters, and calling for bold and science-based legislation to address climate change, I was shocked. This is almost impossible in the country in which I lived. I participated in the preaching and parade in the morning with the children and the youth, shouting the slogan “keep the carbon underground”, and feeling novel, excited, and incredible.

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After lunch, the youth leaders gave us some tips about lobbying, and we met Legislative Assistant Cindy Chen. During the meeting, the children stated an Act for Our Future Pledge and asked each legislator to sign what contains the following: (1) Immediately halt all new fossil fuel infrastructure in our state; (2) Commit Washington state to an economy running on 100% renewables by 2028; (3) Address the need to plant 1 billion trees in WA to sequester CO2. I added on the benefits of planting trees from a Landscape Architect perspective, such as to purify the air, create ecological habitat, and provide therapeutic effect to mental health to in support of the pledge; and expressed my support for Bill 2414, which proposed detailed solutions. MS Chen took notes and said our ideas will be conveyed to Speaker Chopp.

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After the event, I continued to follow up on this event via email. On march 9th, I was informed that since the 350 Seattle organization and the youth activists around the state have been calling, emailing, and just generally pestering the legislators to sign the youth demands for a livable future, they have received signed copies of the pledge from Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon. Rep. Gael Tarleton, and Rep. Nicole Macri!! This is an AMAZING progress due to the voices and advocacy of youth!

 

This experience is very meaningful to me. I can imagine and understand the various considerations legislators must balance when passing a bill, such as ownership and land-use code, and it might not be as simple as the youth stated–“plant 1 billion trees”. However, it is undeniable that these bottom-up pushes are important for social progress. I see children and youth in the United States know that they can and learn how to make a change in a legal and effective way in their young age. This made me feel the power of American democracy and the power of perseverance, and I appreciate it much; I was encouraged, as a foreigner from a country with a different political and economic system. I think my country is also changing as the world is changing. As a new generation, we should be braver; let our voices be heard and make the world a better place through a correct and effective way.

Lobbying with Youth for Sustainability

I rented a car and drove down to Olympia on President’s Day to take part in the Youth Lead the Way Climate Lobby Day event that was mentioned in class as well as speak with Cindy Chen, Executive Legislative Assistant to Speaker Frank Chopp, about an electric utilities bill. Even though it was a holiday, the legislators were still in session. In fact, the atmosphere was surprisingly lively as there were many other lobbyist groups present to meet with their representatives.

The first half of the day comprised of youth speakers. I listened to inspirational young people describe why climate change legislation was important to them. They demanded legislation that helped Washington state commit to 100% renewable energy and reforest the state. After the speeches, I joined them in a march around the legislative building to demand change and gift a redwood tree to Washington state.

The second half of the day comprised of lobbying and meeting with the legislative assistant. Some of the youth leaders of the event started by introducing the basics of lobbying and tips to having a productive meeting with legislators. Though much of the information was tailored towards youth lobbyists, the information was still relevant to anyone hoping to lobby. Since I had never lobbied before, I found the introduction very informative. Participants were then split into groups to meet with representatives.

When my group met with Cindy Chen, Speaker Chopp’s Executive Legislative Assistant, I planned to speak about House Bill 2347. This bill requires electric utilities to provide reports on the lowest risk options for a transition to a zero-carbon electric grid. I thought this bill was significant since there should be legislation that helps people understand the importance of renewable energy. This bill could play a small role in setting up a framework for future sustainable policies and help drive social and cultural change that contributes towards a more sustainable future. I was interested in the term “overgeneration event” in particular. I told Ms. Chen that there should be language stating what benefits could be available to consumers in case of an overgeneration event since the report was available to the public. For example, the language could read: “The report will state any benefits that consumers will receive in case of an overgeneration event.” Since she was short on time, she just took notes and responded by saying she would pass my thoughts on to Speaker Chopp. I had expected this type of response, but I was just glad I could get some of my thoughts across.

Visiting Olympia to Talk Environmental Critical Area

On a sunny Thursday afternoon, I drove to Olympia, fulfilling the appointment with the associate legislative assistant from Office of Senator Lisa Wellman.

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Together with me, there was my boss, George Li, originally from Hong Kong, China, currently leading a team of consultants working on project permit application of a site located in east Bellevue. We were just out of the meeting with land use attorney in Seattle, discussing strategies towards appealing for wetland re-classification to the City of Bellevue. His involvement in the meeting might very well provide insight to the issues to be discussed, I thought. So why not?

The site mentioned earlier on faces tremendous challenges caused by the existence of critical areas, such as steep slope, wetland, stream, storm water run-off and wildlife habitat. In recent years, dozens of developers looked the site together with wetland delineation report and walked away. In the course of a conversation with our land use attorney, she mentioned that there was a critical area ordinance update(CAO) by City of Bellevue and confirm that the update was made in October 2017 and will be put into effect no later than March 2017. This is devastating because the CAO applies a 110-foot butter to wetland as opposed to 60 foot, negating 14 residential units abutting structure setback and wetland buffer based on the submitted site plan. What is anguish? Anguish means when you buy 5 acres of land with R20, you can nonetheless only build 50 units.

Will there be a grace period or delayed effective date since the update hasn’t been put into effect? Nobody knows for sure. We decided to take our chances by advancing our critical path assisted by consultants’’ team, meanwhile, seeking for confirmation from City of Bellevue through land use attorney, keeping eyes out for useful information. It was at this juncture, HB 2100 came into my sight, relating to the statutory vested rights doctrine and establishing rules for determining what regulations control decisions on project permit applications, providing an effective date and an expiration date. I though this is wonderful and could potentially provide an argument for our own case, although the state government doesn’t necessarily dictate to City of Bellevue how their local ordinance is enforced.

The language relating to critical area ordinance that I highlighted in the bill reads that if the jurisdiction’s critical area ordinance is amended after the project permit application is filed, the amended critical area ordinance applies to the project if compliance can be achieved without significant change to the project. “Significant change” means a reduction by more than 10% lots proposed in a residential application. In our case, the loss of 14 units is beyond 10%. Clearly, the bill doesn’t address the mitigation of such loss, according the legislator’s assistant.

In the bill, it also reads that a county, city, or town must provide public notice when it initiates a process to review, amend, or adopt a comprehensive plan or development regulation.  It’s important to define what actual public notice means and make sure parties concerned are aware of the proposed changes. We wouldn’t have heard about it if it were not for our land use attorney.

The legislator’s assistant commented that sites with critical areas such as wetlands are abundant in Washington state. More and more developments have become infeasible due to opposition from environmentalists. It is a heated debate whether we should go “sprawl” or “density”. Hong Kong is a good example in case by having a very densely planned urban area while managing and maintaining a more than 70% vegetative area ratio. In the case of a walkable and densified neighborhood, many environmental problems can be alleviated such as traffic congestion, carbon emission, public transportation incapability and social inequality, etc.

He also mentioned unfortunately the bill did not make it out of the Committee for environment, right on the day after I made this appointment. Senator Lisa Wellman was the only sponsor of this bill among 98 or so representatives.

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