WOODLAND — Woodland can sometimes seem like a fractured city.
Interstate 5 runs through it, splitting up neighbors who develop deep attachments about where they buy their morning coffee. The city also straddles Clark and Cowlitz counties, making planning for growth more difficult for city officials, who have to follow two sets of rules.
But on a recent Friday, Woodland was more harmonious, as residents gathered in Horseshoe Lake Park to enjoy a warm summer evening, listen to music and watch “Ralph Breaks the Internet” as part of the city’s Movies in the Park program. This is the second year the city has hosted the increasingly popular program, and one way Mayor Will Finn is hoping to bring the community together, as well as get some more interaction between city officials and residents.
“We have a lot of new families around,” Finn said. “This allows us to meet them and ask what they want out of Woodland. It’s not about what (elected officials) want. We’re just the caretakers of the city.”
While finding out what residents want from the city is a good first step toward planning for growth, actually planning for it is a bit more difficult in Woodland, a city that is stuck, staggered, or a bastion of country living. It all depends on whom you ask.
One of the biggest problems in the city is Exit 21 on Interstate 5, the way most people get to Woodland or continue farther north in Cowlitz County. The highway interchange is already packed with daily traffic from commuters and truckers, and as the city grows, traffic slows. It’s not uncommon for exiting vehicles to back up onto I-5.
Along with the interchange, a majority of Woodland residents live in Cowlitz County, and a sliver of the city around Horseshoe Lake is part of Clark County. That means city and school district officials have to plan for growth using two different sets of growth management rules while trying to have their voices heard in Clark and Cowlitz.
“We’re the stepchild of both counties,” Finn said. “We’re trying to be recognized as a legitimate entity in both places, especially Clark County. We’re so small in Clark County. It’s frustrating. I don’t think I’ve had a county-level elected official from Clark County visit or call to learn more about what we’ve got going on since I’ve been in office (since 2016).”
Who funds growth?
Populous Clark County follows the state’s Growth Management Act, which requires fast-growing counties to develop a plan to manage growth. Clark is one of the 18 counties required to follow the plan. Cowlitz is one of 21 smaller counties that doesn’t have to comply, and leaders there haven’t done so.
The Growth Management Act allows cities to charge impact fees, a one-time fee to a developer to help deal with growth brought on by the new development. Those fees can be used for public roads and spaces, fire protection services or school facilities. That means Woodland Public Schools can only collect impact fees from residents living in the Clark County portion of the district. That’s not many.
According to numbers provided from the school district, 14 percent of Woodland’s 2,465 students this past school year lived in Clark County.
“In a non-Growth Management Act county, the mechanism (to collect impact fees) is through the State Environmental Policy Act,” Superintendent Michael Green said. “Thus far, the Cowlitz County commissioners have refused to consider impact fees under SEPA. What that essentially does is allows growth in Cowlitz County from which there is no contribution to the schools.”
Even though the district can only collect impact fees for development in Clark County, Green said it’s a “substantial” amount that pays for things like six portable classrooms that were installed recently at North Fork Elementary School.
“Without those funds, we would be taking the funds to provide that space from the general fund,” Green said.
Finn said the city experiences some of the same difficulties with funding improvements and paying for services. He said about 15,000 residents use Woodland city services, but the city has only 6,300 residents.
“That puts a greater burden on us in the city to pay for these services, and fund additional capital needs,” Finn said.
City officials looked at changing that this year, when they spent months discussing six growth scenarios. The biggest option would have expanded the city’s urban growth boundary by hundreds of acres, including annexing the Woodland Bottoms, where many residents wanted no part of inclusion into the city. Ultimately, city councilors opted to not expand the urban growth boundary. Instead, they voted to allow 12-plus acres in the city to be rezoned.
Preparing for growth
Councilors decided the city isn’t prepared to handle that sort of growth at the moment, but that doesn’t end the conversation. Growth is still coming to the city, which is only a 30-minute drive from Portland. Woodland had an estimated 6,358 residents in 2018, up 14.7 percent since the 2010 Census, according to the most recent information from the U.S. Census Bureau. According to the city’s most recent comprehensive plan, Woodland will be home to 9,274 residents by 2036, which would require an additional 1,292 housing units.
Darlene Johnson, co-owner of Woodland Trucking Line and a Woodland resident since 1966, thinks the city should focus on adding jobs instead of housing.
“We don’t need to be a bedroom community,” she said. “We value ourself as country living. Increasing high-density housing and country living don’t go together.”
Johnson said bringing in jobs and industry will help bring people, which will then naturally develop the city. More people living in the city will also help the commercial businesses, she said. That’s something she feels the city needs before more housing.
“The Oak Tree (restaurant) closed, and the Rotary and chamber of commerce don’t have a place to meet,” she said. “We have the best quality of life of any city around here. Don’t fiddle with it by building all this housing. God gave us the Lewis River, Columbia River and Woodland Bottoms.”
With nearby cities like Ridgefield, Kalama and La Center seeing growth, Finn said city officials and residents need to figure out how to fit into the changing region. Finn said residents don’t see the growth pressure from Vancouver and Portland.
“There’s a whole other world out there,” he said. “Our attitude and mission is that we don’t need help. We can take care of ourselves.”
But when the neighboring counties are both growing, that puts more pressure on Woodland, especially on Exit 21. The city and Washington State Department of Transportation recently agreed to conduct a feasibility study of the exit to see how it’s performing and what can be done to improve it.
For Finn, bringing the agencies together to talk about the traffic is a major achievement.
“We were so siloed off,” he said. “If we get everyone to the table, that’s a step. I don’t know how to turn that into action, but at least it’s taking a step in that direction.”
Exit 21 has long been an issue for residents. Johnson called it a “complete failure.” Scott Langer, assistant regional administrator of operations and planning for the Southwest Region of WSDOT, said he’s heard about issues at the exit since he joined the organization three years ago. He said the study is just getting underway, so current traffic counts aren’t complete.
However, WSDOT does keep permanent traffic recorders for different spots throughout the state. On the count closest to Exit 21, which comes right before the exit heading northbound, the area averaged 32,514 travelers a day in 2009. So far for the data available in 2019, that number has increased to 39,130 travelers a day.
There are a number of things WSDOT can do to improve the interchange, Langer said, adding that it’s too early to discuss possibilities. One thing he did say, though, is that the fix probably won’t come from just changing the offramps.
“We try to look at the system as a whole,” he said. “That means looking at parallel roads to the state highway system and other things we can do outside of the interchange.”
Tamara Greenwell, spokeswoman for WSDOT’s Southwest region, said the agency has a “holistic” approach to looking at traffic.
“All these facilities feed each other,” she said.
Langer said that whatever plan is decided on, it has to allow for both commuters and truckers.
“Woodland has to develop economically,” he said. “They need jobs. When you have economic vitality, traffic comes with that. The cost of making that go away might not be economically feasible.”
Transportation is a main concern about the future of the city for Jennifer Keene, executive director for the Port of Woodland.
“Critical infrastructure is needed for the growth of Woodland, especially for industrial,” she said. “The lack of good transportation planning and execution will kill any potential industrial growth here. The port is only within Cowlitz County, but that isn’t to say we do not feel the impact of Clark County growth. All along the I-5 corridor growth is occurring.”
She said the city and WSDOT’s study on Exit 21 will be “defining for any future growth whether residential or industrial.”
For the port’s purposes, Keene would like to see more industry brought into the city.
“The port’s big picture is the future of our marine properties and the development of our industrial parks, and the future expansion of those parks to serve industrial growth,” she said. “This is key to relieving some of the residential financial burden of property taxes to industrial. The financing of public works, police, fire and education is on the backs of residents and current industry. We want to be part of the solution of growing the industrial side, creating the balance of financing and creating a strong quality of place for our community.”
6,358 residents in 2018, according to most recent Census estimates
• Mayor: Will Finn
• Incorporated: 1906
• Every year, the city hosts Planters Day, which started in 1922, making it one of the longest continuously running civic celebrations in the state.
• Received a visit from then-President Bill Clinton in 1996, who was in town to survey damage from a recent flood.
• Website: www.ci.woodland.wa.us