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In Our View: Leaders must hone visions for coming decades

The Columbian
Published: February 20, 2024, 6:03am

In an effort to distill a complex process to a couple simple sentences, Alisha Smith does a pretty good job.

“A comprehensive plan looks at the city from a bird’s-eye view and evaluates how the community should grow over time,” Smith, the communications manager for the city of Battle Ground, told The Columbian. “This plan assesses citywide policies and goals in regard to infrastructure, transportation, housing, parks, economic development and other topics that affect quality of life.”

The quote appears in an article from reporter Shari Phiel, explaining Clark County’s duty to update its growth management plan for the next 20 years. The county council and leadership teams in each of the region’s seven incorporated cities must develop visions for the coming decades.

To put that into context: Imagine where your family will be in 20 years. It is nigh impossible to accurately predict where you will be working or even where you will reside. Now try to do that for thousands of households and guess how many people in a particular city will require housing and roads and sewers and parks and public transportation a generation from now.

Under Washington’s Growth Management Act, passed in 1990, local governments across the state are facing that demanding task. Updates to the comprehensive plan are due to the state by June 30, 2025.

Getting there is not easy. A decade ago, controversy arose when then-Councilor David Madore hijacked the process, leading fellow Councilor Jeanne Stewart to say: “So much of what has been offered has been offered by one councilor and offered within the last two or three weeks. That is an issue because that does not represent collaborative working with the planning commission, other councilors and the planning staff. We need more time to work this out.”

We trust that discussions will be more collaborative this time around, but there already has been controversy. Last year, county councilors adopted a population projection using a model favored by the Building Industry Association of Clark County, which has a vested interest in the projections. But the county’s projection was not out of line; it fell within guidelines recommended by the state Office of Financial Management.

Overall, two goals are preeminent, if seemingly incompatible.

One is to protect the boundaries between urban and rural areas, deftly managing growth and preventing sprawl that sullies farm land and open spaces. As Clark County Councilor Sue Marshall said: “Protecting the resource lands, the rural lands, and still keeping some green spaces between the cities is something I’m going to be advocating for throughout the comp plan update process. As I look at the map, those cities are getting closer and closer together.”

That highlights the other goal: Enough development to accommodate a growing population. As is evident from growing homelessness, there is a shortage of housing throughout the region.

In truth, the Growth Management Act has contributed to that shortage by limiting buildable areas. The Legislature has taken steps in the past three years to address the issue, focusing on zoning regulations to promote increased density within urban growth boundaries. But expanding those boundaries — and encroaching on rural areas — will be necessary at some point.

That part is beyond the purview of city and county governments. That probably is a good thing; their task is difficult enough in developing a comprehensive plan for the next 20 years.