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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: Development near railroad requires balance

The Columbian
Published: May 16, 2023, 6:01am

After years of disputes surrounding sewer lines, Clark County appears ready to move forward on thoughtful development in rural areas adjacent to a short-line railroad. An agreement regarding potential projects appears to be a reasonable solution that can bolster the region’s economy while still tending to environmental concerns.

It has been a long time coming. In 2017, the Legislature passed a law allowing Clark and Okanogan counties to move forward with rail-dependent industrial development on land adjacent to railroads. The Portland-Vancouver Junction Railroad, which runs between Interstate 205 and Fruit Valley Road — where it connects with the BNSF rail line — has been eyed for such development. But legal disputes have held up any progress.

County officials adopted a proposal for part of Brush Prairie to clear the way for development. That would necessitate updates to the county code, including an option to extend sewer lines — which typically are limited to urban growth boundaries under the state’s Growth Management Act.

Amid all the wrangling, county officials and railroad operators signed a new lease in December. Now, the Clark County Council is expected to receive information about the plans at a workshop on Wednesday.

“What I’m hoping … let’s look at what it might look like if we follow the actual language of the bill,” Councilor Sue Marshall 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.”

The issue points out the difficulties presented by the state’s Growth Management Act and the bureaucracy that accompanies development. Those difficulties can be necessary, as Washington works to avoid sprawl that overruns rural areas with unfettered growth. But they also can be maddening as communities struggle to implement changes that can enhance economic growth.

Reasonable adjustments to the Growth Management Act, allowing for expanded urban areas, are needed to help mitigate Washington’s housing shortage and facilitate economic development.

That is a broad view of the issues surrounding a relatively small decision applying to short-line railroads. But for nearby residents and industrial developers along Clark County’s railroad, the small decisions are more important than statewide growth management.

Marshall expressed concern that development along the railroad would harm agricultural land. As a farmer and former board president of Friends of Clark County, a nonprofit focusing on development issues, she long has worked to preserve agricultural lands.

The key to the issue is to hold the Portland-Vancouver Junction Railroad to the words of its president: “We intend to be a good neighbor. 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.”

If county officials can find a balance between protecting agricultural lands and allowing limited development along the railroad, it can be a win-win for all involved.

Which brings us to something then-Rep. Liz Pike said when the bill passed in 2017: “This is a victory for Clark County residents who want to work in the community where they live. I’ve been told by those interested in development along the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad to be prepared for a lot of ribbon-cutting ceremonies in the future. I look forward to seeing new manufacturing job opportunities in our local area as a result of this bill.”