By Erica C. Barnett
In an unusual move, City Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Alex Pedersen persuaded a majority of their council colleagues last week to fast-track an amendment to the city’s Comprehensive Plan that would set the stage for “transportation impact fees” on new housing—fees that are based on the premise that dense, urban living causes negative impacts on the city’s transportation system.
The Comprehensive Plan is the overarching framework for planning and development decisions in Seattle. The changes the council is considering would allow transportation impact fees, “identify deficiencies in the transportation system associated with new development,” and adopt a list of projects that could be funded through such fees.
Pedersen has said fees on new housing could allow the city to reduce the size of the Seattle Transportation Levy, which is paid for by property taxes—lowering taxes for homeowners while raising the cost of new apartments for renters.
The council voted to bypass the normal process for approving changes to the comp plan, skipping Councilmember Dan Strauss’ land use committee to send the proposal directly to the full council, with a single public hearing scheduled for the council’s 2pm meeting on November 7 (coincidentally, Election Day). The council would vote on the amendment itself two weeks later, on November 21—the deadline to push the changes through this year.
Unlike MHA, in which developers fund new affordable housing in exchange for greater housing density, impact fees treat new housing as a bad thing that must be offset by fees to offset its negative impact. This anti-urbanist assumption elides the fact that the hundreds of thousands of people moving to Seattle over the coming decades are going to have to live somewhere—and that if there isn’t enough housing in the city, people, including many who can no longer afford to live in Seattle, will be pushed out into car-dependent suburbs.
Strauss, who has already scheduled a public hearing in the land use committee for November 29, protested this departure from the council’s normal procedures, noting that the city spent years deliberating over changes to industrial zoning and a tree protection ordinance, and both still need work after passing earlier this year. In addition, Strauss noted that the city’s hearing examiner has yet to issue a ruling on an appeal related to the fee proposal, which developers say would have a significant negative environmental impact—namely, it would reduce the amount of new housing in the city.
“I believe it is important that we receive the hearing examiner’s decision and have the time needed … to understand the policy” and hold a public hearing before voting the changes through, Strauss said.
Proponents of the legislation, including Herbold and Council President Debora Juarez, have minimized its impact, calling it a minor “procedural vote” with no actual policy impacts. In reality, changing the city’s Comprehensive Plan to allow impact fees is a consequential decision that could ultimately reduce the amount of housing that gets built inside city limits.
Juarez, Herbold, and Pedersen are not running for reelection and will leave the council at the end of this year.
According to a staff analysis, impact fees could bring in between $200 million and $760 million over 10 years—similar to the Mandatory Housing Affordability program the city adopted in 2019, which allowed denser development in some areas while helping to fund new affordable housing. MHA, like impact fees, was controversial, and the council held “at least 20 committee meetings” before passing it, Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda noted.
Unlike MHA, in which developers fund new affordable housing in exchange for greater housing density, impact fees treat new housing as a bad thing that must be offset by fees to offset its negative impact. This anti-urbanist assumption elides the fact that the hundreds of thousands of people moving to Seattle over the coming decades are going to have to live somewhere—and that if there isn’t enough housing in the city, people, including many who can no longer afford to live in Seattle, will be pushed out into car-dependent suburbs whose negative impacts are well-documented.
Advocates on both sides of the issue will now have just two opportunities to weigh in—once at the full councl meeting on November 7, and two weeks later, when the council is scheduled to take its final vote. Although Pedersen claimed last week that the commenters who showed up to oppose impact fees were just “paid lobbyists” who were “afraid of a public hearing,” Mosqueda argued that the accelerated schedule makes it less likely that ordinary members of the public will be able to weigh in on changes that could further depress housing development in the middle of a housing downturn.
Once the council adopts the changes to the Comprehensive Plan, they can begin the process of adopting the fees themselves. That process will almost certainly have to include additional comp plan changes, since the proposal the council is considering includes a list of projects that includes some that have already received funding—like the RapidRide G line on Madison Street, set to open next year.