Monday, March 20, 2023
March 20, 2023

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Weighing Woodland Bottoms: Cowlitz County, Woodland struggle to find common ground

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An aerial shot shows a portion of the land in the Woodland Bottoms near the border of Clark and Cowlitz counties.
An aerial shot shows a portion of the land in the Woodland Bottoms near the border of Clark and Cowlitz counties. (Port of Woodland) Photo Gallery

LONGVIEW — Longtime disputes between the fast-growing city of Woodland and the rural county it partially resides in has culminated in a now-dismissed lawsuit, and both municipalities with similar planning goals, but no agreed path.

In the fall city officials identified the Woodland Bottoms — an area in unincorporated Cowlitz County — as the city’s next area to grow, while still aiming to protect farmland. Cowlitz County denied those changes, despite previously OK’ing development in the Bottoms.

In October, Cowlitz County sued Woodland and asked the state to review the city’s actions, arguing the changes directly conflict with the county’s planning goals, zoning and development regulations, according to the lawsuit. The city didn’t comply with state statute and the environmental analysis didn’t ensure protection of the Woodland Bottoms, the complaint states.

Two months later, the Woodland City Council rescinded the zoning ordinances in question to avoid litigation but continued talks with the county to work out a new agreement.

The county filed to dismiss the lawsuit on Thursday and moved to withdraw its appeal with the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board, said Chief Civil Deputy Doug Jensen. As of Monday, both were officially dismissed.

Officials from both entities said they want to work together, but coming up with a compatible plan is easier said than done while complying with two different sets of planning regulations.

“The city is trying to think strategically,” said Travis Goddard, community development director. “I know members of the community are looking at the city with criticism thinking we’re just stumbling along making dumb decisions and getting our hand slapped because of it. But really we’re trying to figure out a way forward that works for the entire community, including the county citizens.”

Growth Management Act

Both the city and county stated they want to protect the Bottoms and maintain its agricultural use, but seem to disagree on how to go about it.

Over the last several years, the Bottoms — located in unincorporated Cowlitz County — has seen considerable growth, affecting traffic and taking a toll on city infrastructure like roads, police and fire departments and schools, Goddard said. The county doesn’t always tell the city about development plans, he added.

“What we’re trying to do is figure out a way to get the county to work with us to master plan the entire Bottoms,” he said. “We don’t necessarily want to stop development down there, but we want the county to include us and to address our concerns when they’re doing development in the Bottoms.”

Woodland is the only city to fully plan under the state’s Growth Management Act in Cowlitz County because it is partially located in Clark County.

Cowlitz County Commissioner Dennis Weber said the unique situation often puts the county and city at odds with “no formula to get collaboration going.”

State law requires 18 fast-growing counties — including Clark — and the cities within them to fully plan under the Growth Management Act. Fully planning counties and cities use state population projections to determine where growth over the next 20 years should occur and designate an urban growth area that sufficiently accommodates it.

Woodland’s urban growth area currently includes small pieces of land directly outside the city limits. Almost all of the Woodland Bottoms — the approximately 6,000 acres outside the city between Interstate 5, the Columbia River and the Lewis River — is Cowlitz County land not included in Woodland’s urban growth area.

The county’s comprehensive plan designates most of the Bottoms as agricultural economic resource land, with smaller areas designated as industrial, small holdings or rural lands.

Not a new conversation

The city previously considered expanding the urban growth boundary in 2018, after receiving eight applications to change its comprehensive plan.

Woodland officials looked at potentially expanding the boundary to cover the entire Bottoms but designating the large space west of the railroad tracks as an “urban holding area.” The city wouldn’t OK any development there until it completed a master plan, Goddard told the city council during a Sept. 19 workshop.

At the time, area residents, Cowlitz County and other agencies questioned if Woodland could handle the growth, with particular concerns about effects on the interstate exits and city utilities.

In September, Goddard said the city’s utilities have enough capacity for expected growth and development fees will help offset the cost of services already being used by county residents.

Councilwoman DeeAnna Holland said during the September meeting she remembered several years ago many Bottoms residents “didn’t want the city moving in on them.”

“I totally get it, but then half a minute after council decided to not do anything, a couple developers started developing in Bottoms, and everybody was like, ‘Whoa, whoa we didn’t want development,’ ” Holland said. “If I remember the argument correctly, … you wanted to manage growth, not cram a bunch of housing developments out there.”

Cowlitz County challenged the 2018 expansion, citing a 1981 agreement essentially requiring county approval to move forward, Goddard said. The county said it would be a better “planning partner” moving forward, but Woodland officials haven’t seen much cooperation, he said.

Staff turnover at the county Building and Planning Department may be part of the problem, Weber said.