Neither of the candidates running in a special election for Clark County Council want an asphalt plant in Brush Prairie, a failed proposal that once drew strong opposition and continues to haunt the unincorporated community.
But as Democrat Adrian Cortes seeks to unseat Republican Clark County Councilor Gary Medvigy this fall, he’s sought to stake out a different position than his opponent on how the county should proceed with the industrialization along a stretch of the 33-mile Chelatchie Prairie Railroad.
Since 2017, the county has been seeking to implement a change to the state’s land-use laws that makes way for Clark County to allow industrial development along the county-owned rail line.
While it’s been touted as a way to expand the county’s economic base, some residents have been uneasy about how it might affect the area. It’s also generated contention as staff and county councilors have disagreed on how to implement the new law. During this time, a rift emerged between the county and the Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad, the company contracted to operate the rail line, that has landed both sides in court.
While the project has stalled, for now, the industrialization will have the most direct impact on District 4, a rambling and rural district that Medvigy and Cortes are seeking to represent. While both said the county could improve public outreach, they’ve taken different views of the project.
Medvigy, a Republican appointed to fill a vacancy on the council in January, described the rail line as a “valuable asset to the county.” He said that allowing development along it could help create good jobs that residents of the district would want.
“One of the deficits this county has is a lack of jobs,” said Medvigy. “The ratio of people living here to jobs is not what it should be.”
Cortes, a member of the nonpartisan Battle Ground City Council, has taken a different position.
“I am completely opposed to industrialization in rural areas, including Brush Prairie,” said Cortes.
Medvigy acknowledged that some people in his district would rather see the rail line replaced with hiking paths. But Medvigy said that Clark County’s lack of jobs contributes to congestion from residents commuting to Oregon and other problems. He also said that there are property owners in the district interested in selling their land for development and should be allowed to do so.
“I want to put it to its best use and not languish and fade away and (instead) become an economic asset if done carefully,” said Medvigy. He said that the county needs to maintain its rural character and quality of life for residents, however, as it continues to implement the law.
As the county advances, it should make sure that developments create good-paying jobs while taking into account its impact on parks and schools, he said.
Cortes announced his position in a 1-minute video posted to Facebook where he criticized his opponent for not taking a firmer position.
“We need bold leadership that is strong, firm and clear,” said Cortes. He concluded the video with, “I’ve got your back.”
In an interview with The Columbian, Cortes said the county doesn’t seem to have a well-thought-out plan for job creation or for development along the rail line. He reiterated his call for Clark County to launch a visioning initiative to develop a long-term set of community goals based on extensive public feedback.
He said that Camas and Battle Ground have already adopted visioning initiatives. He said a similar process for the county would result in land-use policies and planning for capital facilities and parks that better represent community concerns. He said that the county should instead focus on “job-ready” locations for economic development in the Vancouver urban growth boundary.
The Brush Prairie Neighborhood Association couldn’t be reached for comment. But in the past members have expressed concern about the county’s plan to allow development along the rail line. Cortes said he’s heard similar concerns.
“People moved to that region for a certain quality of life, and if you are just going to change that by dropping in industry that is not appropriate for the area, that’s a valid concern,” he said.
Cortes also questioned whether Eric Temple, president of Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad, was the best partner for the county. He cited Temple’s clashes with the county. Temple said that he’s been unfairly treated by county staff, particularly after he accused a county attorney of what he characterized as a conflict of interest.
Other members of the council, particularly Julie Olson and Eileen Quiring, have supported moving forward with the development. Quiring made it a campaign issue in her run for Clark County Council chair last year. Her Democratic opponent, Eric Holt, questioned if the development would pay off with good-paying jobs. But Quiring prevailed in the Brush Prairie precincts that would likely be impacted by the development.
Last fall, the council considered regulations that would allow agricultural, construction, chemical, machinery and other industries to set up along the rail line. However, the council agreed to hit the pause button until after the November elections.
Medvigy said that while some good work had been done on the regulations, he said the county should step back and get more public input before proceeding. He noted how a committee put together by the county to help draft regulations was criticized for being tilted toward rail interests.
“I think it would be prudent to restart that process,” he said.
Work on allowing industrial development along the rail line stalled when both Clark County and the Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad filed lawsuits in Superior Court against each other in March.
In its lawsuit, the county argued that the lease to operate the railroad held by Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad isn’t valid. The lawsuit from Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad argued that the county hadn’t fulfilled its obligations to make the railroad viable.
Temple said that his side is prevailing against what he said are some of the weaker arguments made by the county.
Court filings show that the county has agreed to drop its claim that the lease is invalid or unenforceable on grounds that it’s in violation of the Washington Constitution and the county charter.
The county officials have previously said they wouldn’t comment on the lawsuit. But Clark County Manager Shawn Henessee said that the county is still arguing that the lease is invalid.
“That is still the county’s point,” he said.