Confused by urban holdings?

These designated urban lands are a distinct part of the Clark County’s growth management planning

Steve Morasch
Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt

There has been a lot of press lately about lifting the urban holding designation and what will happen to land that would be opened up for development if the urban holding designation were lifted. But what exactly is an urban holding designation? And how does the urban holding designation interplay with the rest of Clark County’s growth management planning?

An urban holding designation is a zoning tool that the County uses to make sure that an area will have adequate urban services and facilities to support development at urban levels. If property has been designated as urban holding, then it has already been brought into the urban growth boundary, and in that sense is considered urban land. However, lands that have been designated as urban holding cannot actually be developed until urban services, including schools, fire and police protection, water, sewer, roads, and drainage, are made available to allow urban development.

Lands designated as urban holding differ from urban reserves. Lands designated as urban reserves are located outside of the urban growth boundary. Property in the urban reserves areas are likely to be considered for, and perhaps included in, future expansions of the urban growth boundary. But, urban reserves are technically considered rural lands since they have not yet been brought into the urban growth boundary.

The question of where and how much to expand the urban growth boundary is often controversial because it involves policy decisions of whether certain lands should remain rural or whether those lands are suitable to become urbanized. It also involves a question of need for additional urban land, which is driven by population forecasts and the available supply of developable land inside the urban growth boundary.

In simple terms, we can either build up or we can build out. Small lot sizes are a direct consequence of urban planning and the increased densities that urban planning encourages, and often demands, inside the urban growth boundary. More land would mean more flexibility for larger lot sizes, but at the cost of eating up more rural lands for urban uses. Where do you draw the line? That is a difficult question that the County is currently facing in its growth management process.

Unlike urban reserves, properties designated as urban holding have already been brought into the urban growth boundary. That means that the difficult and often controversial policy decision that urban holding properties should be developed to urban uses has already been made for these properties. The only question remaining is whether adequate public services and facilities can be provided at the present time.

Traditionally, properties designated urban holding were developed in conjunction with an annexation to the nearest city. However, for those areas in the northern section of the Vancouver urban growth boundary, annexation is not feasible in the foreseeable future. Therefore, the County is undertaking some additional analysis in conjunction with the development community in order to put a plan into place to ensure that adequate public services and facilities will be available to allow development of the property. That analysis is primarily looking at transportation and school facilities, which will be provided through development agreements with the developers seeking to develop properties in these urban holding areas.

Once a process has been put in place to provide urban services to these urban holding properties, those properties can be developed to urban uses, as envisioned in the County’s comprehensive plan and zoning ordinances.

Steve Morasch is a real estate and land use attorney in the Vancouver offices of Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt. He can be reached at 360-905-1433 or