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Wednesday, November 29, 2023
Nov. 29, 2023

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Board considers challenges to county comprehensive growth plan

Attorneys for groups rehash arguments for three-member region panel

By , Columbian political reporter

A quasi-judicial panel spent nearly six hours Wednesday mulling over challenges brought against Clark County’s comprehensive plan, an expansive document required by the state that directs growth in the county over a 20-year period.

After the Clark County council approved the document last year, it drew two appeals that challenged the plan from two different angles. At the Clark County Public Service Building, attorneys from both groups rehashed their arguments for the three-member Western Washington region panel of the Growth Management Hearings Board.

In July, local environmental group Friends of Clark County was joined by Seattle-based land-use group Futurewise in appealing the plan. They argued that the plan violated state law by improperly expanding urban growth areas, contributing to sprawl, not ensuring that future development had access to water and imperiling farm land.

In August, Clark County Citizens United, a rural group of property owners, filed an appeal arguing that the county skirted public participation requirements, improperly limited rural development and used a low-ball population projection figure in crafting the plan among other claims.

The board has until March 23 to issue a decision.

Here are a few notable exchanges.

A thirsty question

Futurewise scored a victory early in the hearing after the board denied a motion by the county to supplement the record with a document describing how it evaluates water availability prior to approving development proposals. As the county crafted its comprehensive plan, Futurewise raised concerns that the county was planning for growth that wouldn’t have adequate access to water.

Tim Trohimovich, lawyer for Futurewise, restated figures showing that the county could serve 4,859 households with existing water resources, yet the county already had 5,042 vacant lots.

“This was an issue that was clearly raised during the process,” Trohimovich said.

‘McMansions’ versus farms

Futurewise faulted the comprehensive plan for reducing the minimum size of agricultural lots from 20 acres to 10 acres and of forest lots from 40 acres to 20 acres, arguing that the move failed to conserve farm and forest land and it did not protect groundwater.

“The problem with that is that overdevelopment in agricultural and rural lands is already causing harm to wells,” Trohimovich said.

Trohimovich argued that the smaller lot sizes would create sprawl as property owners would use the new zoning to build “McMansions” with “big lawns.”

Christine Cook, deputy prosecuting attorney, shot back, citing a study that small-scale agricultural operations, such as wineries, were thriving in Clark County.

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“Rezoning to allow smaller parcels promotes that industry rather than damaging it,” she said.

Later in the hearing, Trohimovich said that large farms still account for significant output.

“The era of large farms is not over,” he said.

Board pushback

During the hearing, members of the board expressed skepticism over some arguments made by lawyers.

Heather Burgess, the attorney for CCCU, argued that the county used a flawed planning method that resulted in an unfair cap on growth in rural areas.

“That’s what this is all about, whether there is adequate land to accommodate rural growth,” she said.

However, William Roehl, a board member, didn’t seem to buy the argument that a county legally couldn’t rely on the planning method used by Clark County.

CCCU’s appeal also faulted the county for accepting Office of Financial Management population projections, which estimates the population will be 562,207 by 2035, in crafting the comprehensive plan and not taking into account the “substantial growth” from Portland.

Raymond Paolella, another board member, questioned Burgess on why the county was legally at fault for not considering growth from Portland.

Roehl pushed back harder.

“You’ve made the allegation, but I find nothing in the record to support it,” he said.

Small cities

Attorneys for La Center, Ridgefield and Battle Ground also spent hours arguing before the board that the cities needed to expand their urban growth areas to accommodate economic growth.

These cities are planning on annexing nearby land for commercial development, which Trohimovich argued would pave over farmland and was unnecessary because there was suitable land elsewhere.

But, at one point, Paolella noted that municipal annexations weren’t something the board typically considered.

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Columbian political reporter