Five months ago, Gig Harbor approved a six-month moratorium on residential development in hopes of finding a way to manage the the city's growth.
“It’s a pause and a reset,” Gig Harbor Planning Director Jennifer Kester said. “The desire is to get to more responsible growth.”
The Planning Department has put “two years of work into four months”, according to Kester, and so far two ordinances which combine a number of amendments have come before the council in public meetings. The first ordinance, Ordinance No. 1389, has passed and the second group of amendments, called Group 2, is set to come to the council on July 9. Two more ordinances, referred to by council as the Group 3 and Group 4 amendments, will be considered after the expected expiration of the moratorium.
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While some people praise the council's efforts, others say it is not doing enough to address the regional housing crisis.
“The city is a relatively small portion of Pierce County’s housing area,” Pierce County Council Member Derek Young said. “This moratorium won’t have as big of an impact as if Puyallup or Tacoma also decided to stop growth … But if you reduce the housing supply, that will naturally increase prices. It will also price people out of existing housing.”
Why the council pressed pause
In the last five years, Gig Harbor’s population grew by 33 percent, well above Seattle, which grew 19 percent in the last five years.
“The raw numbers are higher in Seattle, but when it comes to the percentage of the community, they are not seeing anywhere near the growth we are,” Gig Harbor City Council Member Spencer Hutchins said. “So we have to spend a lot of money on infrastructure.”
Hutchins, who was previously a member of the city's planning commission, said the city has seen a 200-percent increase in need for infrastructure resources and a 300-percent increase in our calls for service for the city’s civil resources.
“Gig Harbor is a desirable place to live,” Kester said. “There is land available. A lot of land is being consumed, and we are having a lot of growth. And we are not so sure that’s how we want to continue. And if we are going to grow in the future, is this the way we want to?”
The regional housing crisis has made Gig Harbor the most expensive place to live in the county. The median price for May was nearly $500,000, up $6,110 from a year ago, according to a home sales report from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service.
A study from the group SmartAsset, an online financial technology and advice company, ranked Gig Harbor as the best place to retire in Washington.
The study’s research shows over 25 percent of residents in Gig Harbor are retirees.
While a growing population has put a strain on the city’s resources, Young says people who outside the city but in the greater Gig Harbor Peninsula also are contributing to problems.
“And a lot of the traffic is coming from people outside of the city coming in for services. The vast majority of the population lives outside of the city. It’s about 50,000 who live on the Gig Harbor Peninsula. But less than a fifth lives in the city.” Young said.
A slowdown might be in sight, thanks to the Growth Management Act, a law implemented by the state in 1990 which dictates municipalities’ comprehensive plans. Young says the city of Gig Harbor does not have a lot of room to expand on the peninsula, and is near its required housing capacity. Beyond the urban-zoned areas in and surrounding the city is protected rural land, which would be nearly impossible to rezone for commercial or residential use.
Kester said that, according to the most recent Pierce County Buildable Lands Report, created in 2014, Gig Harbor had the capacity for 3,488 more dwelling units, which includes houses and apartments. According to the Growth Management Act, the city needs to provide only 1,959 dwelling units to the county between 2010 and 2030, meaning the city has more than the necessary capacity."
“Having more capacity than needed means you don’t have to go and change your code. You don’t have to find ways to put more people in," Kester said.
The city decided it was in its best interest to press pause so there was a chance for the city to take a breath and dive head first into zoning changes.
“That’s the unique challenge that we see in the South Sound and the West Sound: The economy in King County and the properties in King County have exploded to such an extent, the population increase and the cost of living has pushed people into the suburbs,” Hutchins said. “That’s absolutely a function of what is going on here.”
“There is one category in the moratorium that comes up, and it’s reducing the number lots you have to build on a piece of property, minimum densities,” Kester said.
Along with the removal of minimum-density requirements in residential and mixed-use zones, Kester said the amendments also remove density bonuses.
“Many places in our code you could add density through meeting certain criteria,” Kester said. "Now you don’t get to add density, but you are not required to meet a minimum density.”
Some of the changes include:
- Defining “serial short plats” and to prohibit serial short plats.
- Allowing residential development in zones B-2 and C-1 with a conditional-use permit; allow residential in the Downtown Business District as long as the residence is above or below street-level commercial uses (also known as vertical zoning); allow a maximum density of six dwelling units per acre in B-2 and C-2 zones and allow a maximum of eight dwelling units per acre in the Downtown Business District.
- Eliminating a minimum number of dwelling units per acre requirement in R-1 zones.
- Prohibiting the use of conditional use permits to increase maximum dwelling units allowed in any zone.
One of the proposed changes in the Group 2 amendments includes a section to change R-1 density range to 0-4 dwelling units per acre, change R-2 density range to 0-6 dwelling units per acre and to change RB-1, WR, WM and WC density range to 0-3 units per acre.
Council member Spencer Hutchins said removing minimum densities in the city was one change he was most proud of.
“I think the change in minimum densities is huge,” Hutchins said. “I’m a property-rights guy. And while (minimum densities) may flow toward increased growth that the (Growth Management Act) would like to see, I see it as a restriction on what a property owner is allowed to do.”
Young, former Gig Harbor councilman, said he asked the council to consider how removing minimum densities could affect long-time families with moderate incomes.
“My one concern is their discussion of housing in commercial zones,” Young said. “Which is multi-family housing. Where do our teachers live? Where do our cops and firefighters live? Young families for that matter.
"For people who are starting out and don’t have a six-figure income, it’s going to be multi-family housing. If we reduce that, we are going to become a community that has limited housing.”
The removal of minimum densities also caught the eye of the Washington Department of Commerce, which advises municipalities about upcoming housing legislation.
Ike Nwankwo, western Washington manager of growth management services for the Department of Commerce, said the department was concerned over elimination of housing minimums, which could make housing costs rise and add on to the homelessness crisis the state faces.
“We know you have the capacity,” Nwankwo told the council. “It’s not about the capacity … it’s about affordability.”
The last big push the city is making, according to Kester, is protecting Gig Harbor’s natural environment. That will be considered mostly with the Group 2 amendments being presented to the council in July. Those amendments are;
- Removing wetland buffers, streams, stream buffers, ravine buffers and bluff buffers from the city’s “net buildable area” density calculations.
- Requiring short plats to have a 15-percent tree retention.
Group 3, as it currently exists, would include changes in lot sizes and coordination with Pierce County and utility providers about the city's Urban Growth Area, Hutchins said. Group 4 is longer term amendments.
“It’s a large group of secondary items that will almost assuredly be after the moratorium,” Hutchins said. “Rome wasn’t built in a day, and we are not going to get all of this done tomorrow.”
What does it mean?
Kester and Hutchins said most of the changes are just numbers on paper right now, and many residents won’t see physical changes until a few years after the moratorium.
A few vested projects were exempted from the moratorium and the changed amendments, meaning Gig Harbor residents will see these projects built. Once the moratorium expires, developers can begin the application process for new projects. That process could take a year to three years before groundbreaking.
“The developers are going to feel it immediately,” Hutchins said.
As for the larger houses some fear are going to be built as a result of the moratorium? Hutchins believes the market will keep that from happening.
“The reason I don’t agree, I know what the market is bearing right now,” said Hutchins, who owns a real estate agency. “What the market is bearing right now, for the most part, is single-family rambler-style homes, accessible to retirees and millennials who don’t want the McMansion-style house.”
Young says he is still concerned the city he grew up in will continue to price out the middle-class and younger families.
“Don’t get me wrong, nothing they could do could turn this into a place that will have great affordable housing overnight,” Young said. “But how much can you nudge either direction in the margins, I worry about that.”
“Gig Harbor was the highest price median household cost before the moratorium. I think that has to do with a lot of things,” Kester said. “From services that are here, the lifestyle this affords, the views, the environment, the school system. That existed before. (The City Council is) cognizant of affordable housing, they see that’s another topic to take up in another time. Not in this six-month moratorium.”