Spotlight on Sustainability: Thurston County, Washington

The following is based on an interview with Kathy McCormick, Senior Planner for the Thurston Regional Planning Council.

When the state of Washington adopted a Growth Management Act in 1990, local jurisdictions set about creating Comprehensive Plans; soliciting public participation in the process. Thurston County was one of them. Now, in the twenty-plus years since that piece of legislation was enacted, the region has grown by over 100,000 people, making it one of the fastest growing counties in the state.

Olympia, WA via Flickr user WSDOT

“We have a great foundation in the plans that exist from the 90s,” says Kathy McCormick, Senior Planner for the Thurston Regional Planning Council, “But, how can we continue to grow if people don’t know about those plans and how can we address the needs of a changing population if we don’t know what those needs are?” Over two decades later, the region is getting the chance to revisit those issues.

The Thurston Regional Planning Council, made up of local policy makers, equally as frustrated with slowing progress and lack of regional collaboration, was the catalyst for a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Regional Planning Grant awarded to 29 organizations and local governments last year. The focus of the grant is on restarting community conversations about how the region will grow and what kind of growth can be sustained, while still meeting the housing, transportation, and other needs of the community.

Through a series of panels and working groups representing nearly every aspect of the community – housing, water, infrastructure, schools, transportation, and economic development, to name a few – information to guide the planning process is being generated and will be presented to the Sustainable Thurston Task Force for consideration. “Already several hundred individuals have participated in this project,” says McCormick, “It’s been really remarkable to see the wide variety of people who have come to the table – – everyone from School Superintendents to local business owners to the Fire Department have been involved.”

The panels are only the beginning of a multi-year, collaborative process. The Task Force will use the recommendations to inform a series of public discussions, starting next winter, designed to demonstrate the cost and benefits of addressing regional sustainability issues, as well as raise awareness of the opportunities that exist. Scenarios for future growth will be examined, and the public will be able to provide input on drafts of a regional plan.

“Without this grant,” McCormick explained, “this kind of collaboration would never have happened.” While policymakers were aware of the issues facing the region, the solutions lacked community support. Now, with so many new and diverse interests being represented, Thurston County is once again taking ownership over what they want the community to look like for future generations and working to make that vision a reality.

If your community received a Partnership for Sustainable Communities grant and you would like to share your success story, contact jholmberg [at] smartgrowthamerica [dot] org.