Before Vancouver officials move forward with any annexation plans, they should provide a convincing argument regarding the benefits for residents. Will services improve? Will taxes increase? Why should residents in areas outside the city limits want to officially live in Clark County’s largest city?
Those are the questions that must be effectively answered, but in the outdated process that governs annexation, they also are the questions too often ignored. As Chad Eiken, Vancouver’s community and economic development director, explained to The Columbian: “When we come into annexation, there is often a lot of frustration by the people who live in that area who don’t want to be annexed. The decision really has already been made that the plan is for you to be part of the city at some point because you’re served with city services.”
Annexation — the act of a large city swallowing up small cities or unincorporated areas — began to transform the United States in the mid-1800s. Back then it made perfect sense, with expanding cities providing infrastructure such as sewer systems, electrical grids, and public schools to areas that did not have such amenities. As cartographer Karl Phillips told The Washington Post in 2014, “The prevailing wisdom at the time was that the central city should be allowed to annex any growth.”
Now, however, areas just outside cities are not lacking for electrical grids or public schools. The suburbanization created by increased automobile use and highway development in the 1950s turned urban centers into metropolises. It’s not as though the people of Hazel Dell are using the streets as sewers; they have basic services available.
That has altered the issues surrounding annexation. While Hazel Dell and other developed areas sit outside the Vancouver city limits, there is no discernible difference between those neighborhoods and the city itself; there is not a sudden shift from civilization to wilderness as you leave Vancouver. As the National League of Cities has written: “Not only are these fringes socially and economically linked to the city, but oftentimes the residents and industrial and commercial businesses in the fringe areas utilize the city’s resources and services.”
All neighborhoods within Vancouver’s Urban Growth Area are expected to eventually be annexed, giving the city more land area than Seattle and the second-largest population in Washington. Even with that expectation, the process is laborious, often beginning with a utility covenant that hooks up county residents to city services and dictates that the area will support annexation when the city is ready.
In many cases, residents have little desire to join Vancouver, and that calls for a rigorous public relations campaign on the part of the city. As Eiken said: “I don’t know how to change the negative connotation in a lot of people’s minds that annexation is a bad thing. It’s part of planning under the state Growth Management Act. We’re following state law when we, in an orderly fashion, bring parts of the (Urban Growth Area) into the city’s limits.”
There are, indeed, benefits to residents becoming part of Vancouver and having a say in how the city functions. After all, the central city impacts their daily lives, regardless of whether they live within the boundary or beyond it. But that does not answer the questions about whether county residents should want to be a part of Vancouver.
Selling the public on that desire will make future annexations go a little more smoothly.