State Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, has introduced a bill that she said could benefit the state environmentally and economically just by changing one word in the state’s overarching land-use law.
Futurewise, a Seattle-based environmental group, is opposing the bill on grounds that it could aid sprawl.
The Growth Management Act was passed in 1990 to rein in sprawl while also protecting natural resources, among other goals. The law designates cities as being best suited to provide urban services, including sewer and utilities. It prohibits cities from extending services to rural areas except in “limited circumstances” if necessary to protect public health and safety — and to protect the environment.
Wilson’s bill would change the “and” in the law to an “or.”
Speaking before the Senate Committee on Local Government last week, Wilson said the bill would allow local governments to consider extending urban services out of possible risks to public health and safety or separate environmental needs.
“This is really just a good little bill, right?” Wilson said. “We are really only changing one word from ‘and’ to ‘or.’ ”
She said that making the change would do more to protect the environment and provide more jobs. She pointed to an example in Clark County of several large parcels zoned for industrial uses that have drawn the interest of businesses. But she said businesses are reluctant to use these properties because storm and sanitary services cannot be extended to them.
“What seems to be a simple change is actually just the ability to extend urban services outside of the urban growth boundary and undermine the goals of the Growth Management Act,” Bryce Yadon, state policy director for Futurewise, told the committee.
He said that these sorts of developments should be occurring within urban growth boundaries. He said the bill could allow sprawl by facilitating development in outlying areas. He also said that the bill could undermine a number of court appeals regarding Clark County.
Amber Carter, a lobbyist working on behalf of business group Identity Clark County, which supports the bill, told the committee the significant limits the Growth Management Act has placed on the ability of cities to extend utilities has produced adverse environmental and economic impacts.
She pointed to a court case in which developments in Thurston County ended up using septic systems near Puget Sound after they were unable to connect to sewer services.
“But when looking at economic development and the expansion of existing businesses or the recruiting of new business, we also have to recognize regional differences that are impacting economic development opportunities and encourage growth in those areas,” she said.
She brought along La Center Mayor Greg Thornton, who described how a large development, not subject to local or state development regulations, was recently built adjacent to the city’s urban growth boundary. He said that the public would have been better served had the development been connected to the city’s sewer system, but that connection was prevented by the Growth Management Act.
Although Thornton didn’t name the development, its description matches that of the ilani casino resort. Carter later told The Columbian that the casino is a notable example of a city being unable to extend sewer services where it would otherwise make sense to do so. The casino, located above the Troutdale Aquifer, uses a wastewater injection system.
Rail bill connection?
Since 2017, Clark County has been working to implement a change to Growth Management Act, also sponsored by Wilson, that allows for freight-dependent industrial development to occur along the county-owned Chelatchie Prairie Railroad.
Not wanting to attract litigation, the county has been cautious in implementing the law. An outstanding issue has been whether sewer services can be extended to the new development. Clark County Council Chair Eileen Quiring didn’t return a request for comment.
Speaking after the hearing, Yadon said that the Growth Management Act has been undermined over the years after the Legislature has approved “niches,” such as Wilson’s bill that allows freight-dependent development in Clark County.
But both Carter and Wilson said that the current bill is not intended to resolve any ambiguity surrounding the law allowing freight-dependent development. They said the law already allows urban services to be extended to it. Carter said that the bill is about environmental protection and will serve communities outside of Clark County.