In Our View: Law Creates a Dilemma

Bill to aid development along Chelatchie Prairie Railroad puts county in tough spot

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For critics who decry government bureaucracy and oppressive regulations, efforts to establish rail-dependent businesses along Clark County’s Chelatchie Prairie Railroad can serve as a case study.

The issue points out the need for improved balance between development and environmental concerns while calling attention to the manner in which the threat of litigation hampers sensible growth. That is a fairly simplistic summation — perhaps the only simplistic facet of a complicated matter.

This summer, Senate Bill 5517 was overwhelmingly passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee. The bill, which amends the Growth Management Act to allow for development along short-line railroads, applies only to Clark and Okanogan counties and was supported by all Clark County lawmakers except for Rep. Monica Stonier, D-Vancouver.

Advocates say it will allow manufacturers that are dependent upon rail access to develop parcels along the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad, where adjacent farmland is underused. Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, was the lead sponsor of the Senate bill, and Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, long supported similar legislation in the House.

“This is a victory for Clark County residents who want to work in the community where they live,” Pike said when the bill was signed. “I’ve been told by those interested in development along the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad to be prepared for a lot of ribbon-cutting ceremonies in the future. I look forward to seeing new manufacturing job opportunities in our local area as a result of this bill.”

If only it were that simple. Instead, the Clark County council is weighing what has been presented as a difficult choice: Fast action that might invite litigation, or a laborious process to change the county’s comprehensive plan and could take a year or more. Community Planning Director Oliver Orjiako told council members that before development begins, officials should establish a process allowing for public comment and environmental review. Environmentalists contacted by The Columbian agree with that assessment; land-use attorneys disagree.

The county council will consider the matter in the future, but councilors are in a difficult spot. Undertaking hasty actions that invite legal challenges could prove costly, but being excessively cautious would unnecessarily delay beneficial development. Amending the county’s comprehensive plan likely would pre-empt legal challenges, but that would delay implementation of the law until 2019.

“Doesn’t it seem like government always takes the long way around?” Wilson asked.

That remains to be seen, as no decision has been made. Yet the issue sheds light on the need for common-sense application of the state’s Growth Management Act. The act has been important in preventing sprawl and in guiding the expansion of urban areas. For Washington cities, the Growth Management Act is akin to the difference between having manicured gardens or weed-pocked meadows.

But if the Legislature passes a law related to the act, legal challenges should be limited to the state level. It is nonsensical to have individual counties worry about being sued for implementing guidelines defined by lawmakers.

County officials are wise to tread with caution; they did not create this system that often restricts development. But we hope those officials can find a path to allow for growth along the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad — as approved by lawmakers.