David McDonald remembers when it took 20 to 25 minutes in 1990 to drive from the Northeast 179th Street-Interstate 5 interchange to his downtown Portland office.
“You can’t even get to the I-5 Bridge from my house in 20 minutes now,” he said. “And I leave at 5:30 in the morning.”
McDonald, a Portland attorney who practices criminal law and lives in the Ridgefield area, has been a vocal critic of the way Clark County has grown and changed.
“It just seems the residential developers, the building industry, over the course of the last three decades have generated a disproportionate amount of growth and have consumed a great portion of land that could otherwise go to economic development,” he said.
That emphasis on residential development continues to play out today as Clark County crafts a $66.4 million plan using public and private dollars to pay for road improvements near the 179th Street corridor and I-5. Success would allow developers to build 1,155 single-family homes, 326 apartments and 99 townhouses.
The proposed housing developments exemplify a long-standing, and largely unsuccessful, struggle to balance a surging population with an equally robust employment base.
The projects also raise a broader question: Is Clark County addicted to growth?
“We are,” said Councilor Julie Olson, whose district includes the area along 179th Street. “It’s almost embedded in our culture.”
Olson, however, said the road improvements also would open the door for commercial and industrial development that creates jobs.
“There are no guarantees,” she said. “But if you don’t build infrastructure in order to support it (commercial and industrial development), it will be less likely they will come. And at some point they will come.”
Residential development and ensuing population growth have contributed to many of the community’s biggest problems, including traffic congestion, overcrowded schools, polluted waterways and fragmented identity.
Home construction is so ingrained in Clark County’s culture that the 179th Street debate has centered on how the county should pay for the road improvements, not whether it should pay for them, given that it faces a $158 million transportation shortfall across the entire unincorporated area.
Randy Printz, a Vancouver attorney who represents Holt Homes and its plans for 606 single-family homes and 99 townhouses, said the second question is irrelevant to the current debate.
“It doesn’t really have anything to do with growth or no-growth because that decision was made when the (county comprehensive) plan was created,” he said.
“This is the plan that was ultimately adopted by the community,” Printz said. “Not one piece of that plan is proposed to be changed here, not one.”
The Clark County Council has received a series of funding options so the housing projects can move forward, including raising taxes on all property owners in the county. For most of the past decade, Clark County was reluctant to raise taxes, not even taking the 1 percent annual increase in collections permissible under state law.
Olson acknowledged that “it’s not a good long-term strategy just to build homes,” but she rejected any suggestion that Clark County is considering extraordinary steps to allow more home construction.
“I don’t think we are bending over backwards to accommodate residential,” she said. “I think we are doing our appropriate work.”
Tim Trohimovich, director of planning and law at the anti-sprawl group Futurewise in Seattle, sees it differently. Clark and other Washington counties are too reliant on residential development, he said.
” ‘Addicted’ might be too strong of a word, but I do think they are overly dependent on it,” said Trohimovich, whose organization has repeatedly battled the county over its growth management decisions. “And particularly they are overly dependent on the most expensive type of development for the county, which is low-density single-family homes on the edge of the developed area.”
Benefits and costs
Population growth in Clark County has led to job creation and good-paying positions in the construction, medical and educational fields, but it also has spawned retail and other relatively low-wage jobs.