Understanding the new Growth Management Plan

The 280-page Comprehensive Growth Management Plan (Plan) mandated by Washington’s Growth Management Act and adopted by Clark County on June 28, 2016 is technical and complex. It contains chapters that address such topics as land use, housing, capital facilities, utilities, rural and natural resource protection, transportation, economic development, parks and/or open spaces and others. This Plan is characterized by modest expansions of the Urban Growth Boundaries (UGAs) outside of and adjacent to some of our cities to accommodate growth in jobs and population.

The Washington State Office of Financial Management is tasked with providing each county required to plan, under the Growth Management Act, a range of projected population growth to choose from, and use in its planning process. This 20-year plan only provides for a medium level growth projection for a population increase to 562,000 by the year 2035. This translates into a population growth rate of something less than 2 percent. In reality, the current growth rate in our community is noticeably greater than 2 percent annually.

Notwithstanding the growth rate chosen for our Plan, our community is currently in the midst of a housing boom that will not produce enough housing units of various types to accommodate growth as it is actually occurring. If our current rate of growth continues, we may find that available land prices will increase and housing affordability will become problematic. This will make it difficult for those in migrating for jobs to find housing.

The recently completed Growth Management Act planning process included a strong effort by rural property owners supported by two of our county councilors, to convert large rural parcels of land into smaller lots. As a matter of Growth Management Act policy and law, communities are to provide for urban level densities within municipal boundaries and designated UGAs immediately adjacent to those boundaries. Rural areas are to be characterized by larger parcels containing rural densities outside urban areas. The County Council did reduce some zoning designations in rural areas from 40 acres and 20 acres to 10 acres, but did not accommodate other parcel size reductions as requested by rural property owners.

UGA expansions were provided for the cities of Battle Ground, Ridgefield and La Center.

The UGA of Battle Ground was expanded to include 17 parcels (approximately 80 acres) for mixed use, job creation and residential purposes. La Center’s UGA was expanded by 56 acres, all for commercial development. This expansion area is located immediately west of and adjacent to the La Center/I-5 Interchange. Development in this area will likely occur soon in response to the opening of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe’s resort and casino in the spring of 2017. Development will be further encouraged in La Center by the tribe’s construction of an Urban Level Interchange on Interstate 5 at this location.

The Ridgefield Urban Growth Area was expanded to include an additional 111 acres of low density residential land. Ridgefield currently has significant lands zoned for job creation located on both sides of the I-5 Interchange. The expansion of Ridgefield’s UGA will provide for additional housing stock to support job growth in Ridgefield.

Of note, is the lack of UGA expansion for either Vancouver or Camas. Neither of these cities requested that they be allocated additional urban land for housing and job creation. Given the residential growth our community is experiencing, it is likely that land will become more expensive in each of the cities for the near and immediate term. Particularly in Vancouver’s case, this lack of additional land for housing exacerbates the problem of providing housing for those who are homeless or of low income.

The new Plan does contain provisions to enhance the quality of life on our community. There are provisions that promote energy efficiency, green building and local sustainable food production. The Plan provides for enhanced bicycle and pedestrian improvements. Provisions are included for park improvements, and to achieve safety and accessibility for all modes of transportation. Preservation of cultural resources and significant historical buildings is a priority in this Plan.

As was the case with all prior adopted Plans, the environmental community has appealed the new plan to the Western Washington Growth Management Hearings Board. Key issues raised in this appeal include:

Whether expansion of Urban Growth Boundaries was necessary to accommodate population and job growth.

Whether the reduction in large parcel sizes in rural areas failed to conserve farm and forest land.

Whether the Plan failed to provide adequate capital facilities to accommodate projected growth of jobs and housing in expanded urban growth area.

Whether the county improperly de-designated agricultural lands for the purpose of expanding UGAs.

These issues and others are currently being considered on appeal. Absent further court challenges, the appeal should be resolved within six to 12 months.

In conclusion, it is fair to characterize this new Growth Management Plan as modest in nature. It fails to provide for adequate population growth and there is some conversation underway about reopening this plan to provide for additional housing development for the corresponding job creations that result in a growing community.

Steve Horenstein is a managing member of Horenstein Law Group PLLC. He practices law in areas that include business, real estate, land-use and government relations. Horenstein Law Group is a member of the Vancouver Business Journal’s Strategic Partners Program.