Legislation, signed by Gov. Jay Inslee this summer, eliminates a major obstacle to economic development along the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad, a short-haul line owned by Clark County.
The bill, SB 5517, allows for rail-related uses along the 33-mile track even though the site might be outside state-mandated urban growth boundaries.
“This bill removes concerns about taking farm land and using it for jobs,” said Eric Fuller, commercial real estate executive and member of the rail line advisory board. “This is a major decision point. We can move ahead knowing that rail-related development is allowed.”
That development still could be years down the track, said Eric Temple, president of Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad Co., which has operated the railroad since 2004.
Temple said development will mean finding landowners along the rail line who are ready to sell a site as well as making sure site infrastructure (roads, water, sewer) would support a large user. In addition, the rail operation itself will need upgrades to handle increased and heavier traffic. Those upgrades, costing millions of dollars, include track improvements and adding track siding, adding larger locomotives and building a maintenance shop, Temple said.
“All that adds up to some major (capital) investments,” he said. “But without land for sale, we have just been taking cold calls.”
Temple said that in the past year or so the Columbia River Economic Development Council (CREDC) has received four queries from businesses looking for large parcels of rail-served land ranging in size from 100 to 250 acres.
“Until now we had no chance of landing any one of them and the jobs that go with them because we didn’t have any land,” Temple said. “I am optimistic. If we can make services available and have land for sale, we should see action, quickly.”
Temple said the greatest development potential is for property along the rail line in the Brush Prairie area north of where the track crosses State Route 503 at Caples Road.
Meanwhile, Chelatchie Prairie Railroad now services several light industrial customers. Among them is Battle Ground-based Andersen Dairy Inc. and Andersen Plastics, which processes milk and manufactures a variety of plastic bottles and containers for its use and for customers throughout the West.
Another is Omega Industries in Vancouver, which is the largest main line rail crossing supplier in the U.S. Omega also makes dredging components and steel fabricated products.
Last year, the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad moved about 800 rail cars, Temple said. This year through July, the rail operator has seen a nearly 30 percent increase in rail car activity.
“Our business is stable enough to stay alive with the current business,” he said. “The track is in better shape; our customers are in better shape. With the change in the (land use) law, this could be a heck of a railroad.”
Washington State Sen. Lynda Wilson (R-Vancouver) said her hope is that Clark County can lead the way in bringing new economic develop to rural property.
“The land along the rail line is a real resource,” Wilson said. “We need the land and rail services to get certain products and materials to market. The (development) process could take a while, but Portland doesn’t have anything like this. The need is there.”
SB 5517 allows only Clark and Okanogan counties, as a test study, to proceed with rail-related land development. The bill, which becomes law Oct. 19, is being translated into rules by Clark County planners, said Jerry Barnett, project manager in the county Public Works Department.
The focus on economic development along the Chelatchie Prairie line does not affect passenger rail excursions offered approximately one weekend a month on the “heritage” line running north out of Yacolt.
Rail enthusiasts operate both steam and diesel engines pulling several cars, including an open-air car.
The excursions travel through the logging country of north Clark County from Yacolt to Lucia Falls and back, stopping for a half-hour at Moulton Falls Park.
Fuller said implementation of SB 5517 will allow both public and private parties to take a new look at potential rail-related land parcels along the lower portion of the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad.
“We will start seeing land owners consider capital investments to upgrade infrastructure to accommodate a possible user,” he said. “We are seeing plenty of demand with no sign of slowing down. The issue until now has been a lack of land inventory.”
Fuller said users most interested in these properties typically would be manufacturing and distribution users who would import raw material by rail and export a value-added product.
“Over the years we’ve watched companies consider locating here but decided that it was not possible because of land use laws … but SB 5517 has changed that,” he said.
Gov. Jay Inslee, center, signed legislation this summer eliminating a major obstacle to economic development along Clark County’s short-haul Chelatchie Prairie Railroad. Behind Inslee are Eric Temple, left, Dan Weaver, Steve Nelson and Sen. Lynda Wilson.