Vested rights in Washington state have recently sparked debate around their impact on development. Vested rights impact homebuilders and home buyers alike, and smart policy on this issue is important from both an economic and environmental perspective.
Our economy and environment are both critical to the quality of life we enjoy in Washington, and a balanced perspective on vested rights should consider both factors. The laws that regulate development deserve to be explained in a fair and clear manner. Vesting has been characterized as an unfair way for home developers to avoid regulation. In fact, vested rights merely provide a developer the right to have an application considered under current rules and regulations, no more, no less.
To be sure, vested rights are limited to protect the public interest. Vesting does not affect developers’ obligation to obey existing laws or to ignore Washington state environmental statutes such as the State Environmental Policy Act (SEPA). Under SEPA, a local government can deny a vested land use application because of adverse environmental impacts. Vested rights may also be terminated by legislation enacted to protect public health, safety, and welfare.
Additionally, vested rights do not permanently protect developers from new rules and regulations. While vesting does protect homebuilders from post-application changes to development regulations, it does not freeze the law in time. All land use permits expire and at that point, developers’ vested rights expire as well.
Major state legislation that regulates land use, such as the Growth Management Act (GMA), is sometimes characterized as being in opposition to vesting. What vesting critics don’t mention is that the GMA is not solely dedicated to environmental protection goals, but also makes provision for economic development, property rights as well as public participation. The GMA reflects a balanced approach to land management and development in Washington that home developers also work to achieve.
In recent years, the costs, risks, complexity, and number of steps in the land development process have exploded. Land-use regulations are changing more often than ever before. The nature of modern real estate development requires significant financial investment in the early planning stages of projects. As a result, in order to build homes, developers need some assurance that they will be able to complete the projects they start. Vested rights provide the certainty and fairness necessary for developers to make such an investment of time and money. This assurance is especially important given the current state of the economy, and it is critical to achieving stability as the housing market recovers.
From an economic perspective, affordable housing is another important consideration when discussing vested rights. If vesting provisions are stripped, uncertainty and added regulatory burdens will raise the cost of developing new communities, and those costs will be passed on to homebuyers and tenants. Economic growth is jeopardized when Washington’s workers face increased housing costs. In our weakened economic state, the last thing Washington families need are higher costs of living.
Most people agree that working to protect the environment and grow our economy is the right thing to do. Sensible housing development helps achieve both these goals, and vesting plays an important role in this process. Today’s homebuilders are more dedicated to the protection of the environment than they have ever been before. Homes and developments are designed to be sustainable, conserving our resources and landscape. Developers are also leaders in creating jobs that provide employment and fuel our economy.
With strong economic incentives and safeguards for property rights, the homebuilding industry will have the opportunity to prosper again. Strong homebuilding businesses mean more jobs and innovation in Washington. Housing development’s land use planners continue to generate creative solutions that protect the surrounding environment.
In any debate on important policy, the fair use of facts should matter. Criticism that characterizes home developers as disregarding the environment or flouting the law does not have the facts on its side. Vested rights are established Washington law that rightfully provide the housing industry with assurance that developments don’t die on the vine. Overarching state land use legislation, such the GMA, also reflects this common-sense approach. A thoughtful review of vested rights recognizes that such a regime creates a good balance between the needs of Washington residents, local governments, developers, and the environment itself.