As the legislature begins to wade into the contentious task of developing changes to the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA), one of Washington’s fastest-growing areas, Clark County, finds itself embroiled in a battle that captures much of what’s at stake.
The drama slowly unfolding across the Columbia River from Portland pits county planners and elected officials who are trying to judiciously loosen the belt on growth restrictions, against environmental groups and property rights advocates. The dispute is headed to the state’s Growth Management Hearings Board in November, and likely to court after that.
Adding his prominent voice this week to the broader national debate on growth rules was U.S. President Barack Obama. He refreshed a call previously made by his White House Council of Economic Advisors Chairman Jason Furman for regional and local governments to ease back on restrictive development regulations, in order to grow the economy and affordable housing.
Growth Influx For Clark County
According to state projections done at the last U.S. Census, Clark County’s 2010 population of 425,363 will in 2035 have grown by 32.2 percent in the “medium” scenario or by 60.1 percent under “high” growth conditions.
That latter growth level would result in a population of 681,135, just shy of the current total in Seattle – where housing has become scarce and expensive, and traffic increasingly untenable.
According to the Northwest Multiple Listing Service (NWMLS), the August median sales prices for single-family homes and condos combined in Clark County was $285,000, below the 23-county NWMLS median price of $350,000 for the month. Supply of housing units for sale in the county is not only low, but shrinking. It was down to 2.18 months worth in August of this year, versus 2.60 months worth in August, 2015. According to realtors a minimum of three to five months supply is needed to help keep housing affordable.
To meet GMA requirements, and to help handle population, jobs and housing growth to 2035, Clark County in late June announced an update of its “comprehensive plan,” also known as a “comp plan.”
Urban Growth Zones Expanded
The refresh approved by the County Board of Councilors included expanding crucial planning zones known as “urban growth areas” (UGAs) by 80 acres in the City of Battleground, 111 acres in the City of Ridgefield, 73 acres in the City of La Center. The new UGA-designated parcels represent about 1.7 percent, 2.4 percent and 8.9 percent, respectively, of total acreage in each of the cities.
The revised comp plan also would shrink the required minimum lot sizes in rural areas from 20 to 10 acres for residential use, 40 to 20 acres for forest lands, and 20 to 10 acres for agriculture.
More Density, Or Looser Reins?
The petition for review from Friends of Clark County and the Seattle-based environmental group Futurewise asks the board to determine if expansion of UGAs in Battleground, Ridgefield and La Center violates the GMA. They assert growth should be funneled into parcels within existing UGAs. They also criticize a lack of secured funding for related transportation improvements.
A very different review petition was filed by Clark County Citizens United (CCCU). The property rights group charges that the county is lowballing future growth. It states proximity to Portland “increases the demand for both urban and rural land far above” what the comp plan contemplates.
Thousands Of Acres ‘Locked Up’
Testifying to the Washington State House Local Government Committee in a September 20 afternoon work session on possible GMA reforms, CCCU Executive Secretary Carol Levanen charged that the county has “locked up thousands of acres in artificial resource lands.” She concluded, “to enable a robust economic future for all” the GMA “needs to be repealed.”
Chair of the Clark County Board of County Councilors Marc Boldt told Lens that before GMA was implemented, county residents had only 2.5 acre minimums for all classifications of land and “you could do anything” with your property. This changed to a 20-acre minimum for agricultural lands, but the county is now trying to cut that in half with the comp plan update. One home would be permitted per 10-acre agricultural parcel.
Finding The Right Balance
Other counties have tried to similarly downsize agriculture parcels and lost, but Clark County is determined to see if it can succeed, Boldt added. Much of western Washington agriculture needs less land than before because of a shift from a commodity based approach to a consumer-focused model of direct sales and farm stands, Boldt said.
Still, 2.5-acre agricultural plot minimums are a thing of the past, according to Boldt, who used to farm blueberries on 30 acres in Clark County. Of CCCU’s desire for a return to the pre-GMA standard, Boldt said, “I’m sorry, it’s like saying we want to go back to the 80 miles-per-hour speed limit. Those days are gone.”
The county is also contending with other critics such as Futurewise and Friends of Clark County, who don’t like the move to expand UGAs and reduce agricultural lot minimums.
However, Boldt says Portland’s continuing tendency to limit development to its own designated urban growth zones pushes more housing demand across the river to Clark County, and ranks of newcomers are also boosted by retirees. They are drawn by Washington’s lack of an income tax. This cohort drives a need for more density, transit, medical services and careful urban growth planning, Boldt added.
Not all newcomers are empty-nesters, though. Animating the Clark County growth debate, as elsewhere in Washington, is the continuing need for new jobs and economic growth.
The City Manager of Ridgefield, in Clark County, is Steve Stuart. He’s also a former County Councilor, and once worked for Futurewise. Stuart told the House committee last week, “As a city, we find a lot of our UGAs are surrounded by agriculturally-zoned land. Obviously…de-designation is tremendously difficult. But what we also see is that ag land is the best land for future job development.”
Growth in the size of some local UGAs will add to the region’s growing traffic challenge. Transportation infrastructure funding to help handle the new workers and residents can be generated from local taxes and through the county getting its fair share of state gas tax revenues, Boldt said.
About That Elephant
Still, there’s an elephant in the county’s living room. A badly-needed new I-5 bi-state bridge corridor with more capacity, eased bottlenecks and some form of transit is still in the offing. It will require an especially heavy political lift after advanced plans were torpedoed in 2014 over local opposition to tolling and light rail components. Regional sources tell Lens that public conversation will start again by January.