Policy Concepts

These are rough policy concepts that we will discuss and refine as we learn more about the challenges facing the broad diversity of communities across the state. Do you have thoughts on how these or other state policies could help your community become more financially resilient? Share your thoughts via ideas@StrongWA.org.

Tax Shifts to nurture Productive Places

As Strong Towns founder Charles Marohn notes in their Curbside Chat, "The primary determinant of the future prosperity for cities will be the ability of local leaders to transform their communities."

However, limits on property taxes force cities and towns in WA to compete with each other for sales tax revenue, while also removing economic incentives to nurture "strong towns." These distorted state policies prompt local elected officials to lure big-but-fragile projects rather than nurture financially productive communities with human-scale streets. How so?

...and then, as a last gasp to balance the budget and avoid choosing between abandoning critical services and infrastructure...

The state needs to stop pushing our cities and towns into financial fragility.

We need the WA legislature to structure local revenue that nurtures long-term resiliency while nurturing productive places for people.

What kind of local revenue model would do this? Here's what we're thinking...

Tree Canopy Market

Many communities recognize the vast benefits of trees in cities. Many cities have identified (1) metrics to track the amount of trees in their city (i.e., tree canopy percentage) and (2) a target for that metric (e.g., 40% coverage in Kirkland). To work toward these goals, cities commonly create complicated regulations to restrict the cutting of trees, or requirements to plant trees, with monetary penalties if trees are removed against regulations. Few cities have achieved their goals with this approach. This seems a potential opportunity for the state to provide cities with a new tool to help them achieve their goals and realize the benefits of trees in cities.

The state could enable a market-based approach that would allow cities to set a target and administer economic incentives to encourage land owners to plant and nurture trees. In particular, sites that provide less than the target would pay a fee, and those with more than the target would receive a credit/refund. 

Cities could calculate the tree canopy cover for each lot algorithmically based on LIDAR surveys, orthographic imagery, or similar approaches. The cost of each square foot above or below the coverage target would be determined by the market; if there is less than the target canopy level, the excess funds collected could be used to plant trees or acquire land for public trees. With this model, land owners would be empowered to make their own decision on the amount of trees to retain, informed by the economic pricing that reflects the public benefit of trees (or the public impact of their removal).

It's likely that this basic measure of tree canopy isn't perfect, as it fails to account for the greater benefit of native trees, or trees of greater volume. But the specific metric could certainly be incrementally improved over time.

More ideas to come...

Here are some more concepts that we've discussed and plan to write about in the future...