County annexation policy irks state board

Land-use panel also says farmland not being protected

By Jake Thomas, Columbian staff writer

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A state land-use board has determined that while Clark County’s changes to its zoning have put it in compliance with state law, the county has fallen into a “pattern or practice” of improperly allowing cities to expand their boundaries in a way that prevents the expansions from being challenged.

The board also concluded that other county land-use policies contribute to sprawl and fail to protect farmland. The board has indicated it will refer the county’s lack of compliance on the latter issue to the governor for potential sanctions.

The order issued on Wednesday by the Growth Management Hearings Board, a quasi-judicial panel, is the latest chapter in the ongoing dispute over the county’s comprehensive plan, a document required by the Growth Management Act to regulate growth while protecting agricultural and resource land over a 20-year period. The decision could mean additional legal challenges or further revisions to the comprehensive plan.

After the county council updated its comprehensive plan in 2016, it was appealed by local environmental group Friends of Clark County and Seattle-based land-use group Futurewise. In March, the growth board sided with the county on multiple issues but still faulted it for reducing the minimum lot sizes for agriculture and forest land, not allowing an adequate variety of rural densities, creating rural industrial land banks on farmland and improperly allowing La Center, Battle Ground and Ridgefield to expand their urban growth areas.

The most recent decision from the growth board concluded that the county is in compliance with state law after the council voted last summer to amend its comprehensive plan to change minimum lot sizes for agriculture from 10 to 20 acres and forest from 20 to 40. The board also concluded that another amendment adopted by the council creating more rural designations complies with state law.

However, the 29-page decision found that Clark County remained out of compliance with state law by allowing La Center to annex 57 acres of farmland for development and another 111 acres near Ridgefield. The county is currently taking the matter to appeals court.

“We are pleased that Clark County is making progress toward protecting working farms, forests, and rural areas from overdevelopment,” Tim Trohimovich, director of planning and law for Futurewise, said in an email. “We are also pleased that the Growth Management Hearings Board has reaffirmed its earlier decisions that Clark County erred in allowing some of Clark County’s best farmland to be paved over for unneeded residential and industrial development.”

The decision took particular issue with the annexations. It stated that previously the county allowed cities to rapidly annex agricultural land while appeals to the hearings board were still pending. The county has argued that once cities complete the annexations, the growth board no longer has jurisdiction over them. The decision states that the approach of the county and cities has “arguably denied” critics the opportunity to challenge the annexations and development of farmland.

“It’s clear to me that the hearings board is frustrated that the parties were relying on the annexation argument,” said Jamie Howsley, a land-use attorney with Jordan Ramis PC who intervened in the case on behalf of developers.

The growth board concluded that Clark County failed to show that the annexations were needed to accommodate urban growth projected by the state Office of Financial Management. Howsley said that the projections the county initially used were skewed from the recession. He said that more recent numbers from the office show the county’s population growing more rapidly than previously assumed.

The decision states that the county could have approved the cities’ expansion with “appropriate findings in support.” Howsley said he suspects the growth board is essentially asking the county to “show its work” to justify the annexations.

In its initial decision, the growth board found that the county’s plan to establish two rural industrial land banks on agricultural land is not needed to accommodate population and employment growth and will unnecessarily imperil farmland. The county is appealing the issue.

Despite the appeal, the growth board still faulted the county for not coming into compliance with its earlier order. The most recent decision states it will send this finding to the governor, who may impose sanctions on the county. Under state law, revenue to the county could be withheld for failing to comply.

Steve Horenstein, an attorney who represents the Lagler and Ackerland dairy farms, said in an email he will continue to pursue an appeal on the issue of establishing agricultural land banks, which his clients support. He said that briefs on the issue are due in court next month.

Clark County did not respond to a request for comment.