Housing and the Comp Plan

Since the San Juan County Council shifted into a full-throttle, get-this-thing-across-the-finish-line approach to the update process for San Juan County’s Comprehensive Plan (aka, Comp Plan), housing has been a hot topic and focus of discussion amongst Friends of the San Juans and across our community. The Comp Plan is one of the key ways that our County can address the community’s current concerns about development and put climate response and climate resiliency front and center.

The patterns of how and where housing gets built are deeply connected to the health of both our human and natural communities.

Housing affordability plays a central role in the livability and inclusiveness of our communities. Sprawling development diminishes our rural character, fragments native habitats, and increases carbon emissions. In accordance with Washington State’s Growth Management Act, Friends believes that increased density in our villages and other Urban Growth Areas (UGAs) can, when planned thoughtfully, increase affordability, decrease sprawl, and protect our remaining natural habitats.

These are the key housing policy considerations that Friends of the San Juans supports and believes are very important to our community:


  • Friends supports pursuing the availability of sufficient long-term housing stock, including long-term rentals, to meet the needs of people of all income levels. Focusing development in our UGAs is the most responsible means of accommodating growth in an environmentally thoughtful way, especially in a way that prepares our community for the impacts of the climate crisis. Concentrating growth in the UGAs allows for services to be offered more efficiently, thus conserving natural resources as much as possible. It cuts down on energy use, transportation costs, and much more, while protecting our forests and ag lands from development.

  • Development focused within the UGAs is the most fiscally responsible means of guiding growth. Keeping growth focused within UGAs saves taxpayer money. It reduces the costs of providing public infrastructure and services, including roads, water and sewer services, and emergency services, to name just a few. Furthermore, the Growth Management Act (GMA) has a clear mandate for the County’s adopted UGAs, “within which urban growth shall be encouraged and outside of which growth can occur only if it is not urban in nature.”

  • Buildout within the UGAs should be completed prior to expanding UGA boundaries. Expanding UGAs prior to buildout simply creates more sprawl, and it would violate the GMA. In guiding that buildout, Friends supports maximizing densities within the UGAs and incentivizing multi-family development projects.

Adding housing stock in the UGAs is not as easy as it sounds, given construction constraints and financial challenges for development. Friends supports the following approaches to addressing the housing crisis in San Juan County:


  • Densities in the UGAs should be maximized.

  • County codes that address parking and building design in the UGAs may need to be changed so that they pose less of a hindrance to the development of multi-family residences in the UGAs. More data are needed about which actions will best reduce these barriers, and we hope the County will work with the community and developers to collect these data.

  • The construction of new, single-family residences within the UGAs should be strongly discouraged. Many rural communities around the country have already taken this step, or are considering forbidding single-family development in their UGAs entirely.

  • The County should incentivize the conversion of existing housing stock to provide affordable and mixed-income long-term rentals. This includes currently “vacant” housing and private apartment buildings in UGAs.

  • Mechanisms for additional public funding must be created to support the development of new housing stock in the UGAs (including long-term rentals) that is affordable to low- and middle-income residents and families. Allowing the free market economy to “work its magic” over the decades is the single greatest cause of San Juan County’s current housing crisis. Friends applauds the heroic work of the various nonprofit housing organizations in San Juan County, and it’s clear that additional, County-supported efforts are urgently needed, along with appropriate funding.

  • Code enforcement should be undertaken consistently and needs to be based on regular, proactive observations of our lands and shorelines by County staff. Keeping equity in mind, the County should address illegal development, as it is often the illegal structures that damage habitats most or otherwise pose the greatest environmental risk. Enforcement pursued solely in response to complaints has proven to be ineffective and insufficient, and also it can be detrimental to our sense of community by pitting neighbor against neighbor.

  • All new development should adhere to “best practices” with respect to environmental stewardship in order to reduce long-term costs for owners, minimize impact on habitats and natural resources, and advance climate action.

  • The unlimited construction of detached Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs) across the county is not a legally viable means of addressing housing needs, nor one that would provide significant housing solutions. The Growth Management Hearings Board previously addressed ADUs in San Juan County in 2003 and 2007. Click here to read Friends’ recent letter to the Planning Commission and County Council about ADUs.


Friends of the San Juans is committed to working with other organizations and community efforts, encouraging San Juan County’s residents to engage effectively in the Comp Plan Update process. For information about joining in on our Comp Plan Action Team’s monthly meetings, email Brent Lyles.

Resources:

I have supported the mission of the Friends of the San Juans through the years because it is a citizen-advocacy organization devoted to protecting, preserving, and restoring the natural shorelines and native habitats in the San Juans and surrounding waters through science and education for generations to come.

Bob Porter

member, Lopez Island