The Washington state Senate this week approved the companion legislation to a House bill loosening rural land development restrictions after it was vetoed last month by Governor Inslee.
ESB 5517 would allow employers to build on property adjacent to short line rail – lines that run shorter distances compared to national railroad networks – that are necessary for freight mobility.
However, lawmakers amended the proposal so that this change under the state Growth Management Act (GMA) only applied to agricultural and mineral lands in Clark County, where the lack of access to the lone short line rail in the southwest Washington county has cost the region thousands of potential jobs in recent years.
Although the bill easily passed in a 37-10 vote on Tuesday, some proponents expressed dissatisfaction with its limited scope.
“Spokane County won’t be able to utilize this, Pend Oreille won’t be able to utilize this, and neither will Okanogan,” Sen. Shelly Short (R-7) told colleagues. “Okanogan actually has some things they could do right now if this were made possible. I’m excited about the policy moving forward because I think it is good, and I’m hoping we can build on it, but some of the areas I spoke of have very high unemployment, and this would certainly go a long way if they were to be included.”
The sentiment was shared by Sen. Dean Takko (R-19), who said: “I certainly would encourage a vote on this bill, but I do have to say that I am disappointed. If this bill is good enough to spur economic development in Clark County, it ought to be good enough…to do this in other counties.”
ESB 5517 primary sponsor Sen. Lynda Wilson (R-17) told colleagues on the Senate floor that the bill’s narrow influence was the result of conversations with Inslee’s office after his veto of EHB 1504. GMA regulations include identifying agricultural, forest and mineral resource land to preserve for commercial use. In his May 16 veto letter, Inslee indicated that the bill might threaten the state’s agricultural and farming economies.
However, Wilson told colleagues: “We explained specifically (to Inslee) the land that is usable In Clark County…is only good for cattle right now, and even at that, we have a state road, 503, that goes right straight through it that almost makes it impossible for the cattle to move over it.”
“We’re excited for the possibilities that…we can use the short line railroad…to help other rural areas in the future in the state,” she added.
In a statement, Pike said she had hoped for a proposal that included parts of Eastern Washington, but Inslee would only agree to one confined to Clark County. “This issue is just too important to our local economy and has the potential to bring thousands of jobs to Clark County,” she wrote.
Another possibility would have been an override of Inslee’s veto; EHB 1504 received well above the necessary two-thirds majorities in both the House and Senate. It’s a move Sen. Michael Baumgartner (R-6) believes they should have taken, as they did when Inslee vetoed dozens of bills during the 2016 legislative session.
“I am disappointed we are adopting this approach,” he said. “I wish we had come forward, had a robust debate, and overridden that veto.”
The bill now advances to the House.