County lays groundwork on implementing rail law

Council vote adopts zoning overlays, adds policies to plan

By Jake Thomas, Columbian staff writer

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The Clark County council laid the groundwork Tuesday for implementing a state law that proponents say will boost freight-oriented businesses and drive economic development in the county.

At its Tuesday morning hearing, the council voted unanimously to adopt zoning overlays and add policies to its comprehensive plan — a document that guides growth in the county — that will allow industries that rely on short-line rail to set up shop along the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad.

“It creates for us an economic engine, an identity for Clark County,” said Councilor Eileen Quiring. “That rather than being a bedroom of the Portland metropolitan area, maybe we can create some jobs and opportunities here for our people in Clark County.”

Last year, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a bill that made a rare modification to the state’s Growth Management Act, a law that mandates that counties and cities plan to preserve agricultural and natural resource lands. The modification allows Clark and Okanogan counties to adopt regulations that would foster buildings, infrastructure and businesses on agricultural or resource lands near short-line railroads.

But at the hearing, not everyone was supportive.

Howard Graman, who said that he lives near the railroad line, presented the council with a petition signed by about 20 other residents opposing the county’s plans.

“This is a residential neighborhood,” he said. “This is not yawning open farmland waiting to be developed. It is a community where people live, and people who are not interested in having a factory spitting smoke across the fence from their home.”

David Shook, a resident of a mobile home park in Brush Prairie, said that residents of the park rarely see trains running on the adjacent rail line. He said he and other residents are worried that the development could impact their quality of life.

Sue Marshall, the board president of conservation group Friends of Clark County, expressed concern about how the council had relied too heavily on advice from its rail advisory committee and hadn’t done enough public outreach. She also asked the council to adopt measures that would provide greater protections of adjacent agricultural land.

“Clark County is overdue in addressing meaningful mitigation tools for loss of agricultural lands due to development, and this overlay poses significant risk of large-scale conversion of agricultural land to industrial development,” she told the council.

Futurewise, a Seattle-based land-use group that appealed the county’s most recent update to its comprehensive plan, sent a letter to the council last month stating that’s it’s “not necessary to pave over farmland and rural neighborhoods for industrial land” and that similar development could happen in existing industrial areas.

However, there were also supporters of the project. Mike Bomar, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, spoke in favor of the measure, saying that it will help address the scarcity of land for employment projects. He said that it could provide employment opportunities for residents who currently have to commute long distances for work.

For example, he said 92 percent of Battle Ground residents have to travel outside the city, often to Vancouver or Portland, for work.

Susan Rasmussen and Carol Levanen, the respective president and executive secretary of property rights group Clark County Citizens United, both supported the measure for its potential to provide economic opportunity in rural areas.

Speaking after the meeting, Jose Alvarez, a county planner, said that the next steps for the council would be crafting development regulations that would govern what uses would be allowed on properties in the overlay, such as buffers, minimum sizes or other topics. He said the regulations could be drafted by late spring or early summer. He said it’s possible development could begin by the fall.

Toward the end of the meeting, several members of the council noted the importance of drafting the regulations to mitigate the effects of the development on the surrounding area.

“I think with every kind of economic development we have, it’s kind of a two-edged sword,” said Councilor Jeanne Stewart.