Local jobs group: Streamline permit rules

Area's ability to attract companies harmed, CREDC tells state

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

Published:

 
photoLisa Nisenfeld is president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council.

Clark County's largest nonprofit jobs promoter and business recruiter issued a position paper Tuesday calling on state government to streamline its permitting and appeals processes to boost the region's ability to compete for jobs.

The Vancouver-based Columbia River Economic Development Council also criticized what it described as "onerous" stormwater runoff regulations that force many local governments to comply but that unfairly exempt Seattle and Tacoma.

Lisa Nisenfeld, president of the CREDC, said the council plans to press state government to make the changes it seeks. The council -- which counts a wide range of the county's business and government leaders among its membership -- has briefed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Inslee about its paper, Nisenfeld said, and will likewise brief Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna and the county's state legislative candidates.

"We will be rolling this out to other jurisdictions and interest groups," she said. "It's a work in progress."

In its paper, "A New Look at Washington's Business Climate," the council also urges the next governor of Washington to order an independent study that "gauges the interplay between Washington's land-use system, environmental regulation and permitting systems, and business climate."

The study "should be completed quickly enough to inform the new governor's agenda," according to the position paper, which was approved by the CREDC's board on July 19.

Legal battle ongoing

The council's call to action arrives as Clark County government stands alone among local governments in Western Washington in bucking a rule for handling stormwater runoff on newly developed land. The matter is pending before the state Court of Appeals.

Under the federal Clean Water Act, runoff is regulated as a major source of water pollution containing toxic metals, oil, grease, pesticides, herbicides and bacteria that run off buildings and pavement into fish-bearing streams.

The rule Clark County commissioners don't like requires newly developed and redeveloped sites to drain as slowly as they did prior to the arrival of Euro-Americans.

Commissioners have refused to comply with the regulation, opting instead to use an alternative method for managing stormwater runoff.

However, a federal judge issued an injunction ordering the county to follow the presettlement runoff standard. And, previously, the Washington Pollution Control Hearings Board said the county's alternative plan didn't provide equal protection to waterways.

The county's method may be easier to implement and cheaper for developers, the board said, but "there are no data, studies or scientific support to support its underlying assumption that harm caused to one stream can be mitigated through a project in a different watershed."

'No predictable timeline'

The CREDC's paper says Southwest Washington competes with other Western states for industrial and commercial projects but is held at a disadvantage by the state's slow, unpredictable regulatory framework.

While other states move projects through regulatory hoops within six months, according to the group's paper, in Washington state "projects take 18 months or more to be permitted."

And if appeals are filed, "there is no predictable timeline whatsoever," the paper went on. Given that situation, projects go elsewhere.

"With an unemployment rate that is more than 40 percent greater than the state of Washington" -- and that's higher than the rest of the Portland area -- "Southwest Washington desperately needs these new jobs," according to the council's paper.

The paper recommends the state take several actions, including:

• re-engineering permitting channels so that the total local, state and federal process to secure a building permit takes no longer than four months when wetlands are not involved and no longer than six months when wetlands are involved.

• overhauling appeals processes, including combining various hearings boards into one and including "members who understand business."

• delaying implementation of "low-impact development" requirements

• allowing local communities to deploy "innovative approaches, incentives and strategies for environmental mitigation and enhancement."

• providing more support, through tax increment financing or other tools, for infrastructure development "that will lead to land for jobs."

Nisenfeld said the council's paper shouldn't be taken as a move away from environmental-preservation goals. "We're talking about trying to have a variety of ways that we can protect the environment," she said, "and sometimes regulation appears to be more capricious and less fitted to a local environment."

Nisenfeld said Oregon has managed to process development permits more quickly than Washington and "I don't believe Oregon compromises the environment on these things or that they're any less committed to a strong environment than Washington."

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ;http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com