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Sept. 24, 2020

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Clark County Council delays land development decision

Plan raises questions about effects on surrounding area

By , Columbian political reporter
Published:
3 Photos
The Clark County Council discusses funding for updated software for the Clark County prosecuting attorney’s office Tuesday during a council meeting in Vancouver.
The Clark County Council discusses funding for updated software for the Clark County prosecuting attorney’s office Tuesday during a council meeting in Vancouver. Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Citing rapidly changing information, potential effects on schools, lingering questions about developer obligations and a desire for more community involvement, the Clark County Council on Tuesday delayed any action that would lay the groundwork for development of 2,000 acres of land north of Vancouver.

The unincorporated area is the final large swath of developable land in the county, which has been hungry for more housing and to broaden its economic base. But landowners and developers in the area have been stymied from building anything because the land has been placed in “urban holding.” The designation blocks new development until there’s adequate funding in place for improvements to prevent existing roads and other infrastructure from becoming overwhelmed.

A study commissioned by the county found that developing the area near Interstate 5 and Northeast 179th Street would create thousands of jobs and housing units along with tens of millions of dollars in ongoing tax revenue. The council is considering its options to pay for about $67 million in infrastructure upgrades needed to lift the urban holding designation. It’s faced with the question of what share of that cost should be paid by developers, and what should be paid by taxpayers.

At its Tuesday evening hearing, the council again wrestled with those questions and faced new ones on school funding and whether it should incorporate design standards into the new development.

The council was scheduled to vote to move forward with one of seven financing options that had various degrees of funding from developers and the public. But the council put off any action until next month after Councilor Temple Lentz said she was reluctant to make a decision given how information on the project had rapidly shifted and some details had only recently been made public.

“I really feel like every time I get a new packet and there is dramatically different information, and every time we have a council time meeting where we talk about this, there is dramatically different information,” she said.

Clark County Manager Shawn Henessee said he would develop a written framework for the council’s options. Lentz asked that materials for the future council meeting be posted online for three weeks. She also asked that it be posted a week before the council was scheduled to vote so the public could adequately review it.

The council has limited time to act. Director of Public Works Ahmad Qayoumi said the county has about a year to address concurrency standards for the area, meaning it has to find a way to create more traffic capacity.

What about children?

The council was confronted with a new complication to lifting urban holding: the effect on school enrollment, particularly for Ridgefield Public Schools.

“So please remember there is a lot to be desired in housing and in business,” Ridgefield City Councilor Sandra Day told the county council. “Don’t forget your good quality schools.”

On May 6, Ridgefield Mayor Don Stose, Ridgefield school board Chair Scott Gullickson and Ridgefield port commission Chair Bruce Wiseman sent a letter to the county council regarding how lifting urban holding could affect the fast-growing city’s schools.

The letter described challenges the school district already faces. The district’s enrollment exceeds its brick-and-mortar capacity and a bond for a new elementary school narrowly failed earlier this year, according to the letter.

According to the letter, the school district’s enrollment increased by 43 percent over the past four years and is expected to grow by an additional 56 percent by 2023, a projection that doesn’t include opening up the area near the fairgrounds for more development.

The county plans to pay for infrastructure development using agreements with four developers and might use more. The county imposes school impact fees on developers to help offset the effects increased growth has on enrollment. The letter asked the county to follow the city of Ridgefield’s lead in recognizing “that growth must pay its fair share for the needs it creates.”

“At the very least, please require all new development to pay the School Impact Fee Rate adopted by the Ridgefield City Council in 2019,” reads the letter.

According to the letter, Ridgefield increased its school impact fee rate to 25 percent to $8,883 per new housing unit. In unincorporated Clark County, the school impact fee rate is $6,530 per unit. That’s an $11.3 million difference, assuming one new student for every new house in the urban holding area, according to the letter.

Stose, who appeared before the council on behalf of Citizens for Ridgefield Schools, said the city of Ridgefield has raised school impact fees on a regular basis while Clark County hasn’t raised its fees since 2016. With Ridgefield schools facing overcrowding, he asked the council to raise its school impact fees to match the city’s.

David McDonald, a local lawyer, said that lifting urban holding would only facilitate residential development that wouldn’t “pay its own way.” He criticized developers’ agreements for requiring them to pay traffic impact fees up-front that he said they’d pay for anyway, as well as the impact on schools.

“I pay taxes in the Ridgefield School District. I have no kids. I believe in those schools and I want to pay for them,” he said. “But I’ll be darned if I want the developers not to.”

Public comment

The council also heard from others worried about the effects of the development, its cost to the public and whether it would be served by transit. Two local advocacy groups that usually take differing positions both had concerns.

Sue Marshall, president of local environmental group Friends of Clark County, called for the council to delay lifting urban holding status until there is more information about what’s being proposed in the area. She said documents for Tuesday’s meeting were posted only a day earlier and there needed to be a broader discussion about the public’s investment.

She also called attention to letters from Seattle-based land-use group Futurewise and the Washington State Department of Transportation questioning whether the county had adequate funding for infrastructure. (The county did not respond to requests for comment on the letters.)

Susan Rasmussen, president of property rights group Clark County Citizens United, said she supported lifting the urban holding designation but expressed concerns about asking the public to pay for it.

“It’s time that this urban holding be lifted, but there needs to be a better way to pay for this,” she said.

Back to the council

Councilor Julie Olson said that while much of the discussion had been about parcels in urban holding, there is land zoned nearby for commercial and light industrial that are part of a broader development strategy.

Councilor Gary Medvigy questioned the fairness of asking every taxpayer in Clark County to pay for development in one area.

“I would like the urban holding lifted,” said Clark County Council Chair Eileen Quiring. “I think it’s been there too long and it’s a fantastic area to do this. I am reluctant, however, to place upon people a large tax burden.”

Councilor John Blom said he was interested in having the area served by mass transit. He’s advocated for using developer’s agreements to lift urban holdings as a way of having more control over what the area will look like. But Qayoumi said that phasing in the development would be difficult to monitor and implement.

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