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News / Business / Clark County Business

What does future hold for the 179th interchange?

Awaiting state money, short-term plan eyed to kick-start development

By Troy Brynelson, Columbian staff writer
Published: July 8, 2018, 6:01am
4 Photos
Traffic moves along Northeast 179th Street and on Interstate 5.
Traffic moves along Northeast 179th Street and on Interstate 5. (The COlumbian files) Photo Gallery

Jim Carlson knows his dream house is close at hand, if he can land the right deal.

It’s not a down payment that he’s negotiating, but rather the price of his land to sell. He bets his P-shaped 7 acres, with a long driveway that widens around an unfinished home and an old horse training arena, is worth about $500,000 today.

Someday soon the land could triple in value. That is, if Clark County decides to lift a zoning overlay that has rendered the land in his neighborhood practically undevelopable.

“If I can’t sell it as developable property, what does 7 acres and an old farmhouse sell for in that area?” Carlson asked. So he said he plans to wait. “We’re not going to leave $1 million sitting on the table.”

Commercial interests are eyeing the Fairgrounds neighborhood, but the land is placed under what is called “urban holding.” The overlay curtails development in select places so buzzing projects — like business parks and housing subdivisions that have cropped up around Clark County — don’t overwhelm older roads and infrastructure.

Good news arrived in 2015 for landowners like Carlson, private developers and economic development officials, when the state awarded $50 million to rebuild the Interstate 5 interchange near 179th Street.

But there was a caveat: the first installments wouldn’t arrive until 2023.

Now, private developers and local officials may be near a short-term plan that would kick-start development sooner.

‘De facto moratorium’

Although developers and property owners don’t usually agree on land values, both sides see the opportunity in the Fairgrounds neighborhood.

There, properties designated as urban holding fit together like a puzzle. They form a giant polygon comprised of more than 2,200 acres. It straddles both sides of Interstate 5, between hubs like the Washington State University Vancouver campus to the south and ilani to the north.

“It’s really the gateway around the Discovery Corridor,” said Lance Killian, whose company Killian Pacific owns a patchwork of land under limited liability corporations with names like Three Creeks Investors or Three Creeks North.

Killian Pacific won’t start planning its projects, however, until the urban holding is lifted, Killian said. Although some commercial construction is possible, developers like Killian tend to build near large housing developments that aren’t possible under the overlay.

“There is a de facto moratorium,” he said. “Until the infrastructure issues are resolved, we haven’t been able to get to the planning phase of the project.”

Still, activity is underway. Landowners with larger properties say they are already fielding offers and are hiring attorneys to negotiate with the homebuilders and commercial developers who walk up their driveways with offer sheets.

Carlson, 60, said he expects to sell his property to a developer who plans to build at least 200 apartments. He said he wants to use his windfall to build a new home elsewhere. Many neighbors are making similar plans, he said.

“I thought there would be this huge, rural backlash. Like, ‘Don’t include my property, I want my lifestyle. I want my farm.’ It was 100 percent the opposite of that,” Carlson said.

Not everyone is running headlong toward selling, however. A May 2017 survey conducted by the Fairgrounds Neighborhood Association found neighbors hoped to see careful transportation planning. They especially want to see a better route to the south than the freeway.

“We’re super-cautious,” said Bridget Schwarz, president of the association. “We don’t want them tying up (roads) and restricting traffic until we have an alternate route south.”

If the overlay is lifted, they said they favored more parks, business parks and mixed-use developments, the survey said.

Others say that although they would sell, they want to be assured their neighbors aren’t going to be abused by development. Pat Anderson, who owns with her husband a 7-acre property near Carlson’s, said she wants to see more leadership from the county.

“I would be supportive of an overhaul if I thought the county would hold the developer accountable,” she said.

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Like the land sales, however, the requisite plans to improve the roads are also apparently in negotiations.

With state money still five years away, Clark County officials say they are hoping to partner with the Washington State Department of Transportation and private developers to come up with a near-term solution.

With the state dollars imminent, Clark County Council Chair Marc Boldt said they hope to be able to lift the overlay sooner. That is, if they can start improving some nearby roads, as well.

“We’re coming up with development agreements with (private developers) to put money up front, and we’ll put some county money up and eventually get state money to build these projects out,” Boldt said.

Making those fixes won’t be cheap. The Interstate 5 bridges over 179th Street were built in the 1960s, and the interchange is the oldest in Clark County. The county also has plans for arterials including Northeast Delfel Road, 10th Avenue and 15th Avenue. Plans to extend, realign or improve those thoroughfares could cost more than $40 million.

But Clark County Public Works Director Heath Henderson said those costs might not have to be borne at once.

“Those wouldn’t be stipulations” for the agencies and private developers to fix, he said. “It may be pieces of those or other areas they could do to move ahead.”

Although there is a workshop scheduled for Wednesday, none of the agencies know exactly when construction on these projects would even start. Agreements between private interests, WSDOT and Clark County would first need to be struck.

“If we get a plan laid out then there may be some work going on,” said Casey Liles, project development engineer with the transportation agency. “Part of that plan is to identify what pieces we need to improve and what the county needs to improve.”

That is a line that Carlson knows all too well. He bought his property in 1986 but has wanted to sell for more than a decade. He said he has to try to be patient, but it’s hard.

“It’s like, ‘Here’s a genie in a bottle. We’re gonna put it on your table, but you can’t get it uncorked. You can’t get your wish.’ “

Columbian staff writer