After a nearly five-year hiatus due to litigation, the Clark County Council is resuming plans to allow more development to utilize its short line railroad.
A state law passed in 2017 allows Clark and Okanogan counties to move forward with rail-dependent industrial development on rural and resource land adjacent to their railroads.
Clark County implemented the law by adopting a freight rail-dependent use overlay in parts of Brush Prairie. The overlay does not necessarily mean all of the land will be developed, rather, it provides the option for it to be developed.
A Freight Rail-Dependent Use Advisory Committee proposed updates to the county code including an option to extend sewer lines to freight rail-dependent developments.
This raised a legal question because, generally, sewer lines are not supposed to be extended outside of urban growth boundaries as part of the Growth Management Act and the county’s comprehensive plan, Clark County Community Planner Jose Alverez said.
However, a provision in the legislation has been interpreted by some to allow for sewer lines to be extended outside the growth area into Brush Prairie.
“There’s a reluctance, I think, to read the bill the way it was written,” Clark County Councilor Sue Marshall said. “And that was to have narrow sideboards on how this was going to be applied in the rural area.”
The reason for the overlay’s hiatus was that the county and the railroad’s operator, the Portland-Vancouver Junction Railroad, also known as PVJR, were engaged in a legal dispute over the validity of the lease. A new lease was signed last December, and the county council held a workshop about the topic in March.
At the workshop, the council asked staff for a legal opinion about extending sewer lines as well as an economic viability assessment.
Staff are expected to provide this information during the work session set for 9 a.m. on Wednesday.
PVJR mostly operates between Fruit Valley Road, where the short line connects with the BNSF Railway line and Interstate 205, according to its president, Eric Temple.
BNSF drops off full cars at the base of the short line and the PVJR delivers them to its customers along the short line. Generally, one train with 20 to 30 cars goes up to Brush Prairie every week; if there is more development, that could increase to one a day, Temple estimated.
The trains move at 10 mph because of the condition of the track and operate during the day. They primarily transport bulk materials such as sand, steel, roofing aggregate and recycled glass, Temple said.
“We intend to be a good neighbor,” Temple said. “We don’t want to disrupt anyone’s lifestyle. We don’t want to create negative impacts on their lifestyle. We want to fulfill the promise of this railroad.”
Marshall’s concerns are that the overlay will encourage sprawl and harm agricultural land. Marshall is the former board president of Friends of Clark County, a nonprofit focused on community development issues. The group criticized the county’s process in 2018 for giving too much influence to those supportive of development of the railroad and surrounding agricultural lands.
Marshall said she doesn’t object to the railroad as it is and said it could foster jobs, but that it has to be done in a thoughtful way that includes the neighbors in the area.
“What I’m hoping, coming out of the work session will be, let’s look at what it might look like if we follow the actual language of the bill,” she said. “I think the county, the staff, and the wastewater treatment plant, in my estimation, were all in agreement that this is to be narrowly applied and not extending urban services.”
To watch any of the hearings or meetings, go to https://clark.wa.gov/councilors/clark-county-council-meetings.
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