Clark County officials have a long and unproductive history of challenging the state’s Growth Management Act. So it is encouraging that the county council has halted a three-year legal battle over the issue.
County leaders have decided to not appeal the most recent court ruling regarding the area’s comprehensive growth management plan. It is a prudent decision, but it leaves open questions about the next step related to the issue. The county now must bring the plan passed in 2016 into compliance with state law and move forward for the benefit of local citizens.
That means allowing for well-managed growth that leaves room for additional housing developments that are accompanied by necessary infrastructure, while also preserving rural areas as well as possible.
By way of a simple explanation, Washington’s Growth Management Act designates urban areas and provides for their gradual expansion. This prevents farms from being turned into out-of-the-way housing developments and ensures adequate roads, water and sewer service for new housing. The goal is to prevent sprawl that has pockmarked the countryside in other parts of the nation and to adhere to the Northwest’s ethos of protecting rural areas. Generally speaking, if you have a farm, you have a farm, not a 100-lot housing development.
Growth and development are essential to the vitality of the region. They facilitate economic expansion, allow the housing supply to keep up with the demands of a growing population, and ensure that the area is inviting for newcomers. But such growth must be strictly managed.
Those are the basics that have led to the county’s prolonged battle with state government. After Clark County approved a plan in 2016, environmental group Friends of Clark County and Seattle-based Futurewise challenged that plan, saying it facilitated sprawl. Property rights group Clark County Citizens United also appealed, saying that the process for adopting the proposal violated public participation requirements and excluded rural landowners.
Last month, the Washington State Court of Appeals decided that the county’s desire to create a rural industrial land bank was improper, but annexations by the cities of Ridgefield and La Center should be allowed to go through. That is where the issue will stand with county officials opting to not pursue additional appeals. As Councilor Julie Olson told The Columbian, “The likelihood of prevailing on reconsideration at the Supreme Court on the (rural industrial land bank) was minimal.”
All of this is confusing, yet necessary. Washington’s land-use laws have helped preserve the state’s culture and have helped to ensure managed growth driven by quality-of-life concerns rather than solely by economic desires.
For Clark County, the decision to end the court battle reopens the option for millions of dollars in state funding related to growth. Under state law, counties that are not in compliance are ineligible for various funding opportunities, a situation that has limited or halted several local projects. That funding is essential to Clark County’s ability to prepare for the future and to facilitate development that is an investment in the regional economy.
That is the most important aspect of county officials declining to appeal the latest court ruling. Bringing the comprehensive growth plan into compliance with state law will allow Clark County to grow wisely rather than haphazardly, and still retain a high quality of life for all residents.