New Clark County bank ‘swamped’ with business

Steve Morasch
is a shareholder with Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt.

A new Clark County bank is awaiting approval from the state and federal regulators but is already "swamped" with business. But don’t plan on making a deposit unless you are a landowner with wetlands you would like to see preserved or enhanced. This new bank doesn’t trade in dollars and cents, but in wetland mitigation credits.

Much of Clark County’s commercial and industrial land supply is sliced up by wetlands. When developing new commercial and industrial businesses, the goal is to avoid those wetland areas. However, when avoidance is impossible, the law requires that impacts to the wetlands be "mitigated" so that there is "no net loss" of the wetland’s functional and ecological values. Loss of wetlands due to development may be mitigated by the creation or enhancement of other wetlands. Typically, a developer will enhance other wetlands located on the same site by removing invasive species such as Himalayan blackberry and replanting with native wetland plants. This enhancement compensates for the loss of wetlands due to development.

However, sometimes there are not enough wetlands on the development site to enhance and the developer must look off-site for wetlands in order to meet the "no net loss" rule. Off-site wetland mitigation can be difficult and expensive. There are also potential problems with both on-site and off-site mitigation from an ecological perspective in that it results in a patchwork of small pieces of wetland habitat that may be of little overall ecological value in the larger watershed prospective. Small pieces of scattered wetlands are also difficult to monitor and maintain when the Himalayan blackberries grow back and smother the native plantings.

For these reasons, the legislature authorized the creation of wetland mitigation "banks" in 1998. A wetland mitigation bank involves the creation and enhancement of large wetland areas in advance of development. The bank is issued "credits" based on the amount and quality of the wetlands that are created and enhanced by the bank. These credits can then be sold to developers who can use them when their commercial and industrial projects impact wetlands in lieu of having to do either on-site or off-site wetland mitigation. The environment benefits by consolidating the enhanced wetlands into a single large parcel that can be monitored and maintained efficiently. Commercial and industrial development interests benefit by having increased certainty when developing commercial and industrial lands that impact wetlands.

Although the Legislature adopted statutory authorization for wetland banks in 1998, the Washington State Department of Ecology was slow to implement that statute with a regulatory program to approve applications to create wetland banks. The first wetland bank in Clark County is now being reviewed by the Department of Ecology and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for approval.

The bank is being created by a public/private partnership consisting of Clark County, the City of Battle Ground, the Port of Vancouver, and a number of private landowners. The proposed bank includes six sites around the county that total approximately 1,000 acres. Additional sites may be added in the future. If the bank is approved, it could be an invaluable resource to commercial and industrial businesses seeking to expand, as well as local governments who frequently need to impact wetland areas for transportation projects and other local governmental improvements.