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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: It’s hard to predict an unpredictable future

The Columbian
Published: April 19, 2024, 6:03am

The difficulty of population projections can be seen in Clark County’s 2004 estimates. While the process is an imperfect science, it represents an important step in preparing the region for a manageable future.

In 2004, the Clark County Council adopted a comprehensive plan that included population estimates for 20 years in the future. The county, which then had 392,000 residents, was expected to have 584,000 by 2024.

That projection was reasonable, backed by the best available demographic science. And it was important, playing a role in how municipal officials prepared for the housing and infrastructure needs of the future.

But it also was inaccurate. Now that 2024 has arrived, Clark County has an estimated 526,000 residents. This represents sharp growth over the past two decades, but it falls short of the long-ago predictions.

It also leads to questions about how Clark County could have fewer people than expected and still have a severe shortage of housing. That is another issue for another time; for now, the question is how to best prepare for the next 20 years of growth as county officials work to update the comprehensive growth plan.

As The Columbian has noted editorially, this can be a daunting task. A year ago, we wrote: “Imagine planning a backyard party and having no idea how many people will show up. … How do you plan? How many chairs do you rent? How many tables do you set? How much food must be prepared? The last thing you want is to not have enough space for all the guests or to have people leave hungry. So you take your best guess and hope for the best.”

Last year, the Clark County Council adopted a projection of 718,154 residents by 2045. The process was flawed, as councilors agreed to a projection provided by the Building Industry Association of Clark County; as The Columbian asked editorially, “If government officials needed to predict how much milk the people of Clark County will drink 20 years from now, would they trust projections from the Dairy Farmers of Washington?”

But despite the questionable methodology, the adopted numbers were within a predicted range provided by the state Office of Financial Management.

Now, councilors must determine how that projected growth is allocated to cities throughout the county. Hearings are underway, with the next one scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Public Service Center, 1300 Franklin St., Vancouver.

As Columbian reporter Shari Phiel recently explained: “There are two methods for the housing allocation under consideration. The first distributes the growth in housing units evenly among the cities based on their relative size. The second distributes the growth in housing units so that at the end of the 20-year period in 2045, housing stock by price is more balanced among the cities.”

All of this is demanded by Washington’s Growth Management Act, a law passed by the Legislature in 1990 to help plan for growth while protecting rural and wilderness areas. The act has played a role in preventing damaging urban sprawl, but it also has contributed to a limited housing stock that stresses the housing market and plays a role in a growing homelessness crisis.

Much of that is beyond the purview of the Clark County Council, which is constrained by the state law. And much of it could be impacted by unforeseen circumstances. So, while state lawmakers should consider adjustments to the Growth Management Act, county officials will do their best to predict an unpredictable future.