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Gig Harbor Resists Growth, Prompting Warning From State

"Gig Harbor, Washington State, USA" by Rick Obst is licensed under CC by 2.0

All around the Puget Sound region, growing cities are scrambling to make room for new residents. 

But leaders in Gig Harbor, home to some of the region's wealthiest ZIP codes, are moving in the opposite direction, prompting a warning from state officials concerned about efforts to restrict home construction there. 

In February, Gig Harbor's City Council put in place a moratorium halting most residential development for six months.

They then began exploring ways to "downzone" the city, or craft rules limiting the development of houses and apartments. City Council members moved some of those proposals closer to approval this week.

Officials with the state Department of Commerce warned those restrictions could worsen the region's already-serious housing affordability problems, which stem from a housing supply too small to meet skyrocketing demand.

"As a region, we are facing an unprecedented affordability crisis, and each jurisdiction has a responsibility to consider ways to address this regional issue," Anne Aurelia Fritzel, a planning official for the state, wrote in a letter to city leaders.

But, to some residents of Gig Harbor, a city of 7,000 people on the shores of Pierce County, reigning in growth is a more pressing issue.

Voters angry about the city's changing character and worsening traffic swept a new mayor and four new City Council members into office in November.

"A lot of people tell me everything they moved to Gig Harbor for is going away," said Jeni Woock, one of the new City Council members.

Gig Harbor's population has swelled by a third over the past five years, according to city officials. Some residents see the community's charm slipping away.

"Growth is going to happen," Woock said. "But you have to have a thoughtful plan for how the growth happens and how it affects your community, and that's not what was not done in the past."

Pierce County is seeing some of the nation's fastest population growth, pushing housing costs higher as people from King County and elsewhere move there for a cheaper cost of living.

The growth has brought problems. Residents of Tacoma were recently displaced by a Seattle developer who bought their apartment complex and set about renovating it. Traffic has emerged as a major issue even in the county's rural eastern reaches.

Gig Harbor Mayor Kit Kuhn, who was elected in November, said city officials must work to counteract effects of the state's nearly 30-year-old Growth Management Act, which he said concentrated too much growth in cities before their infrastructure could catch up.

"There's actually been a pushback from cities saying 'We can't do it this fast,'" he said.

City Council members could vote later this month to limit the number of housing units that can be built in Gig Harbor's downtown and other commercial zones. It's the first phase of a three-phase plan to restrict housing development in the city.  

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.