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Q&A with 4-STAR Community King County, WA

This month we hear from King County, WA, a member of the STAR pilot program and Certified 4-STAR Community.

What was King County hoping would come out of completing the STAR certification process?

King County has been an advocate and contributor to the STAR program since its inception and was excited to complete the certification process last year. We see the STAR certification process as an opportunity to obtain a comprehensive and independent understanding of the effectiveness of both County and community efforts towards becoming more sustainable. We also used the process to assess our data gathering and reporting environment to better gauge our organization’s progress and performance.

As a county with many jurisdictions, how do you create a cohesive sustainability effort?

King County uses a partnership approach to develop cohesive strategies with the cities on many services and policy initiatives. With 39 cities and hundreds of special districts in King County, we take a consensus-building approach to outcomes and strategies, aligning efforts where possible while also balancing the need for individualized approaches. The County often plays the role of the convener and provides staff and other resources, which are more difficult for smaller jurisdictions to contribute. Some recent successes include: the passage of a major regional transit package, a county-city climate coalition, and working to help make sure every child has a path to success in our community.

How will your STAR certification help with that cohesive sustainability effort?

The STAR assessment goal areas and objectives strongly align with the County’s existing strategies and efforts. We hope to use this certification to better coordinate with cities and other partners as it provides a standard approach to measuring actions and outcomes. These measurement standards provide a data architecture that facilitates regional collaboration and helps us understand the degree that actions taken by jurisdictions are yielding intended outcomes.

What were some of the challenges you faced being a county going through the STAR certification? How did you overcome those challenges?

The STAR certification process surfaced unique considerations that a county faces in being recognized for sustainability actions. Many objectives require applicants to have a certain level of authority or direct jurisdiction, rather than recognizing supporting or coordination roles, for example related to land use zoning or permitting for development. As a county, we frequently play facilitation and support roles that are not well recognized through the STAR certification. Many of those challenges were not overcome, and we simply had to pass over credits that require municipal authorities. As the STAR rating system evolves, we hope to see greater recognition of counties’ unique and different roles in regional governance.

How do you balance the needs of the different jurisdictions in the county when it comes to sustainability support?

The County generally attempts to balance initiatives and support across the jurisdictions, while placing a strong emphasis on ensuring equity and social justice. We typically work with a “coalition of the willing” to advance our joint goals, and make the work open and available to those who might not have the same initial level of commitment or resources. In many cases, we find that guidance, templates, or other internal documents are helpful to others who don’t have dedicated personnel to work on various sustainability issues.

We convene and participate in an array of regional governance processes to stay connected with the governance and policy priorities of our many jurisdictions. Typically, when several jurisdictions have ambitions that align to our policy priorities, we find a way to move forward with a ‘coalition of the willing’. The King County Cities Climate Collaborative is an example of this, and increasingly, our work on Equity and Social Justice. None of the complex sustainability challenges we face end at a jurisdictional boundary, so it makes sense to work shoulder to shoulder with our public, civic, and private sector partners.

Does the county take more of a top-down or partnership approach when working with individual jurisdictions to encourage sustainability in the county?

The county pursues several complementary tactics: it tries to lead by example, it tries to provides services and support for cities efforts, such as supporting local green building programs, and uses a partnership approach, encouraging jurisdictions to participate in different sustainability components based on their interest and resources. Our countywide planning policies, required under the state’s growth management act, sets up a cooperative framework for the county and cities to develop policies and goals – many of which related to sustainability components. The County also may look at incentives where appropriate and available. For example, in 2015, the Executive launched an initiative to create 700 units of permanently affordable workforce housing to help meet regional need, while catalyzing market-rate residential and commercial development near rail stations.

In addition, our region is fortunate to have numerous visionary and progressive leaders who are actively championing sustainable communities. Seattle, Redmond, and Bellevue are just a few of the cities in our county that are sustainability leaders in their own right.

How will King County’s certification inform or aid Executive Dow Constantine’s priority areas: best-run government, equity and social justice, climate change, and regional mobility?

The certification provided validation for many activities the County has conducted towards building a more sustainable community through the Executive’s priority areas. The assessment itself has highlighted areas that will benefit from greater attention under these priorities – and especially areas where we need more robust data.

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