If you permit it, they will come

County may begin EIS scoping on areas before entrepreneurs buy land

In the never-ending quest to make Clark County more attractive to new business, county planners may be moving toward programmatic permitting – identifying potentially prosperous areas of the county and starting the environmental-impact-study scoping process before developers take a stake in the land.

The county getting the areas "shovel-ready" will save potential entrepreneurs time and money, giving Clark County an intense competitive edge in attracting business, and thus good jobs and tax revenue for the county, said newly reelected Commissioner Steve Stuart.

The EIS scoping process takes, on average, one to two years to complete. By doing the leg work up front, developers could break ground on new projects in a matter of weeks. Stuart identified Northeast 117th and 119th streets, Barberton, the Discovery Corridor and the nearly 900-acre Lagler dairy near Brush Prairie as ideal candidates.

Ultimately, Stuart said he would like to see an online inventory of the county’s shovel-ready sites. Prospective builders would be able to visit the sites, type into a search engine what they’re looking for and get a list of parcels that meet their specifications and monitor how ready they are for construction.

Online also means the land could be viewed by developers across the globe.

"In fast-paced markets, businesses can’t wait two years to break ground," Stuart said.

Because of holding costs, the cost of waiting to build on land can be tens of thousands of dollars each month, plus the money that’s lost by not having a completed product to begin bringing in revenue.

"Each month you’re not building is another month in the red," Stuart said.

And while time is money, potential businesses will secure something equally as valuable – certainty.

"The environmental permitting process is not only long and cumbersome, it can change your plans," Stuart said. "Knowing that you can site where you want is invaluable. Once you’ve bought land, it’s tough to learn you can’t build your business there."

That guarantee of certainty is priceless, said Scot Walstra, chairman of the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce Public Affairs Committee.

"I think it’s a great idea," he said. "Right now the permit process is unpredictable and expensive, and it hampers the county’s ability to recruit business when people are uncertain how much time and money they’re going to have to spend to come here."

The financing to build a large project can run into the millions of dollars, Walstra said, and to have to sit on property for a year while plans are being examined is not uncommon.

"Sometimes there’s no end in sight. The clock stops and starts too many times and there are far too many people that are confused," he said. "Anything the county does to streamline will be helpful to the business community."

Laying the groundwork

At this point, the model is just a dream in the heads of community planners – the board will start looking at it closely in early 2007 – but the county has already started to lay the groundwork for such a model. In early 2005 the county rolled out Pacelane, a prioritized permitting process that, for a fee, assigns a project lead from the county to large-scale projects to simplify communication throughout the process. Legacy Salmon Creek Hospital took advantage of the program.

On top of that, the county identified three focused public investment areas: the Salmon Creek research park, the Highway 99 corridor in Hazel Dell and Barberton. The idea is to speed the process of attracting new jobs in those areas by focusing road and other infrastructure improvements.

The two are fundamental building blocks of a programmatic EIS program, Stuart said. The next step may be to put Pacelane online, making it less resource-intensive.

Paying to play

One question the Board of Commissioners will have to consider is what to do about the cost that the county will incur by conducting EIS work up front.

Should the businesses that move into a pre-scoped area reimburse the county or should the county eat the cost and view it as an investment for economic development?

Stuart said the county has $10 million in an economic development revolving fund from the real estate excise tax, but Elie Kassab, president of Vancouver-based Prestige Development who also sits on the GVCC Board of Directors, said he thinks businesses wouldn’t mind repaying the county.

"They would be crazy not to feel positively about a model like this," he said. "If a government agency is willing to do some of the work for them up front, they would be crazy not to pay for it." Kassab applauded the Board of Commissioners for thinking progressively, and said the model would be good complement to the commission’s desire to have a responsible growth management plan.

Stuart said the model couldn’t be used everywhere in the county because it’s not sustainable, unless businesses agree to reimburse the county for its costs in operating the program.

Supporting economic development

Anything the county can do to recruit and retain business in the county is applauded, said Brad Lothspeich, president of the Hazel Dell/Salmon Creek Business Association and chair of Team 99, a group of citizens and business owners in Hazel Dell seeking to revitalize Highway 99 that formed in 2000.

"Sometimes you go though so much red tape, you move on to somewhere it’s easier to get going," he said. "Anything that can be done to expedite the process, keep jobs and help businesses on this side of the river, I’m certainly in favor of."

In the past, Clark County had a reputation of being particularly difficult to develop in, but Lothspeich said the current Board of Commissioners has tackled the issue head on and has made steps in encouraging growth, including the appointment of Kelly Sills as the county’s economic development director.

Walstra said there is more the county could do, such as setting a prescriptive path to implement a 60- and 90-day permitting process. The first step would be meeting with developers and contractors and taking a "very real survey of how the delays affect their business and what they would like to see in a permitting process."

"The perception is its tough to move quickly, but settling for a process that’s always slow is not good," Walstra said.

If programmatic permitting is implemented, the commissioners will meet with the private sector, as they did when selecting the focused public investment areas.

"If what we come up with doesn’t meet the business needs, it was a wasted effort," Stuart said. "The only way a system like this offers opportunity to us is if businesses come and site there."

Economic development is an evolving process, he said.

"As we start using tools, we develop tools, and we’re going to continue to need input on what’s successful and what’s not as we move forward," he said. "We have a 20-year projection that’s aggressively targeting jobs, and just drawing colors on the map is not going to get the job done."

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