County looks to secure bright future for parks

Council signals readiness to move forward on land acquisitions, more for $19.7 million in conservation projects

By Jake Thomas, Columbian staff writer

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The Clark County council signaled its willingness on Wednesday to move forward with an ambitious plan for 12 conservation projects across the county.

The projects, recommended over the summer by the county’s Parks Advisory Board, will cost a total of $19.7 million for land acquisitions and the purchase of easements that would be used to expand public trails and parks, protect fish habitat, preserve natural resource land and other purposes.

“The big thing here is we are talking about the future of parks in Clark County,” Jay Chester, co-chair of the parks advisory board, said of the opportunity the county has to fund these projects using bonds that currently have low interest rates.

“If we don’t act now, then it will be more expensive and that’s why we are recommending (funding) all 12 projects and issuing the bonds,” Chester said.

Since 1985, Clark County, has partnered with small cities and nonprofits to identify, purchase and maintain wetlands, wildlife habitat, farms and other natural areas for protection through its Legacy Lands program.

It’s funded through the county’s Conservation Futures, which levies a 4.62-cent property tax per thousand dollars of assessed valued. Funding for projects is also supplemented with money from local jurisdictions, grants as well as the land conservation groups, such as the Columbia Land Trust.

Funding the projects would also come, in part, from $9 million in county-issued bonds. The bonds would have a 20-year term and their principal and debt would be paid for with Conservation Futures revenue. They would require an estimated $625,255 in annual debt service payments.

The sponsors of the projects include small cities, the Columbia Land Trust and Clark County. Under the advisory board’s preferred scenario, sponsors would contribute $6.6 million with the potential of getting $6.3 million in state and federal grants. The rest would be paid for with funding from Conservation Futures.

The advisory board also forwarded two less ambitious scenarios to the county council that both involved funding fewer projects with less issued in bonds.

In response to questions from councilors, Larry Frueh, finance manager in the Clark County Treasurer’s Office, said that none of the presented scenarios would affect the county’s ability to maintain and operate current projects under the Legacy Lands program. Debt service payments would also be covered by the levy he said.

“We believe we have the capacity to take on these projects,” said Pat Lee, Legacy Lands Program coordinator. He added that project sponsors will be responsible for maintaining acquired properties.

Toward the end of the session, the council expressed that they were comfortable moving forward with the parks advisory board’s preferred scenario and wanted to get public input. They directed Lee to begin drafting a staff report and resolutions for a future public hearing.

Speaking after the meeting, Lee said the program seeks properties only where the owner is willing to sell their land or provide easements on it. He said that any of the projects could be potentially delayed or derailed if a property owner is unwilling or if grant funding doesn’t come through.

The last time the county considered projects for funding under the Legacy Lands program was in 2010 said Lee. The last project the program completed was the Schmid Family Park in Washougal in 2016, he said.

Project Information

Lacamas Lake North 

Sponsor: City of Camas.

Acres: 70.

Total cost: $4.8 million.

This project would expand the 800-acre Lacamas Corridor park and greenway system, establishing a link within the 7-mile multi-use trail system that circles Lacamas Lake. Speaking during the work session, Peter Capell, Camas city administrator, said that the area north of the lake is developing and the city is interested in creating a trail on Leadbetter Road.

Washougal Greenway Connection 

Sponsor: City of Washougal.

Acres: 0.22.

Total cost: $55,000.

Would create a greenway and trail corridor connecting the city’s Hathaway and Schmid Family parks.

Ridgefield Schools to Flume Creek Corridor

Sponsor: Clark County.

Acres: 61.

Total cost: $932,368.

Would create a trail corridor connecting Ridgefield Outdoor Sports Complex to the county’s Flume Creek property near Lake River.

East Fork Lewis River – Mason Creek

Sponsor: Clark County. 

Acres: 65.

Total cost: $726,599.

The project is for salmon habitat recovery. It’s the sixth-highest-rated recovery project of 55 included in the Lower East Fork Lewis River Aquatic Habitat Restoration Plan.

Chelatchie Rail Trail – Tukes Mountain

Sponsor: Clark County.

Acres: 110.

Total cost: $1.9 million.

The project would complete the acquisition of a 3-mile-long multi-use regional trail corridor, connecting Battle Ground Lake State Park to the city of Battle Ground. There have been questions as to whether the owner of land needed to complete the project is willing to sell.

La Center – Bolen Creek

Sponsor: City of La Center

Acres: 5.48

Total cost: $154,000

This project would acquire a link in the city’s Trails and Pathway Plan and would connect northern portions of the city to the East Fork of the Lewis River.

Lewis River Ranch Phase 2 

Sponsor: Clark County.

Acres: 160.

Total cost: $2.3 million.

Lake River Water Trail 

Sponsor: Clark County.

Acres: 81.

Total cost: $486,000.

This project would establish shore-based staging and stopping areas along Lake River. The project would also support the Lewis River-Vancouver Lake Water Trail Master Plan.

Yacolt Burn Forest Phase 1 

Sponsor: Columbia Land Trust.

Acres: 8,445. 

Total cost: $4,332,500.

The project would acquire a conservation easement on a large swath of forestland near properties owned by the state Department of Natural Resources. During the work session, Glen Lamb, executive director of the Columbia Land Trust, explained that the land is owned by Weyerhaeuser Co., a large private owner of timberland. The easement would commit the land to long-term timber production and would also keep it open to the public.

Rock Creek Forest 

Sponsor: Columbia Land Trust.

Acres: 362.

Total cost: $1.7 million.

The project would acquire a conservation easement on forestland that would commit it to long-term timber production and the preservation of steelhead habitat.

East Fork Lewis River 

Sponsor: Columbia Land Trust.

Acres: 43.

Total cost: $539,500.

The property is currently owned by a local chapter of the Optimists Club. The project would place an easement on the property that would allow it to continue to be used as a youth camp.

Salmon-Whipple Creeks Farm Preservation

Sponsor: Clark County. 

Acres: 150.

Total cost: $1.7 million.

The project would use Conservation Futures funds to purchase development rights on some of the county’s most valuable farmland.