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Wednesday, October 4, 2023
Oct. 4, 2023

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Clark County Council continues debate over land along rail line

If sewer can be extended to aid development among issues

By , Columbian staff writer
3 Photos
Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad conductor Brad Johnston rides along the Chelatchie Railroad line while working near St. Johns Road. On Wednesday, the Clark County Council continued its debate on whether to allow heavy industrial development along the line.
Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad conductor Brad Johnston rides along the Chelatchie Railroad line while working near St. Johns Road. On Wednesday, the Clark County Council continued its debate on whether to allow heavy industrial development along the line. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The question of how lands adjacent to Clark County’s short-line railroad can be developed and used won’t be easy to answer. That became clear during the county council’s second work session to consider freight rail-dependent uses and heavy industrial development regulations on Wednesday. The first work session was held March 1.

“Either we keep the railroad as it is and it just continues to languish, we turn it into trails or we go full steam ahead,” said Councilor Gary Medvigy.

The council had several options to consider Wednesday, including doing nothing, creating development regulations with and without heavy industrial uses and creating regulations with and without sewer service.

Extending the sewer line along the rail line could be a hurdle. According to county attorney Christine Cook, state law does not allow sewer lines to be extended past the urban growth boundary. Some on the council want to extend the sewer line along the rail line, much of which runs through areas outside the urban growth boundary, to attract development.

Cook said there are many uses allowed on rural lands — but that does not include urban development.

Medvigy said he didn’t necessarily agree with Cook’s interpretation of the law.

“The first paragraph of the statute itself makes it clear that code, zoning, regulatory changes were all up to the council to move forward, to comply with the rail-dependent use. It is an exception to the normal restrictions outside the urban growth boundary for purposes of developing and using to its fullest extent the railroad,” Medvigy said.

With that language open to interpretation, and because he couldn’t imagine any business being interested in a property without sewer service, Medvigy said he wanted the council to work with state lawmakers to make the law more direct and clear during the next legislative session. He also said he doesn’t want to just move forward and risk another lawsuit.

“This law has languished since the governor signed it because of the lack of political will,” Medvigy said.

Council Chair Karen Bowerman said she agreed with going back to the Legislature to clarify the language in state law. Bowerman said while it has been tradition to link sewer service with urban development, tradition wasn’t a good enough reason to limit development code.

“It has to be more than tradition to where there is real reason that is understood in the law,” Bowerman said.

“The law specifically defines sewer as an urban service and says urban services aren’t allowed here,” Cook countered.

Bowerman said definitions included in law are sometimes not based on real-world needs, so getting clarification from the Legislature could help resolve differing interpretations.

Councilor Glen Yung said he wanted to better understand the potential benefits from land uses along the rail line, possible uses for the land and costs for extending the sewer line before moving forward in any direction.

“I look at this as a giant business decision,” Yung said. “Do we choose to invest in hopes of a return that’s larger than our investment?”

Yung said the council needs to understand the financial impacts to make an informed decision. However, Medvigy and Bowerman said it is far too early in the process for an economic study.

“We certainly can’t know the costs of the sewer until we know about whether sewer is allowed,” Bowerman said.

Councilor Sue Marshall agreed with Yung that there needs to be some understanding of the economic benefits possible.

“What has been suggested or identified so far is an asphalt plant, a cement plant, aggregate and garbage. It would be good to understand what additionally could come in,” Marshall said. “Even with those industries, and I’m not saying those are necessarily bad industries, what jobs do they bring in … what kind of jobs are they creating?”

Marshall noted there are other uses for the rail line that don’t require sewer service, such as transporting materials from the county’s existing mines (and which come with an entirely different set of challenges). She said she wanted staff to look at what similar developments would be possible.

The council agreed to have staff update the options presented while it works with legislators on the state law language. County Manager Kathleen Otto said staff would bring those updates back before the council at a future date.

To watch the full council meeting, go to https://clark.wa.gov/councilors/clark-county-council-meetings.