Three years after the Clark County Council adopted its 20-year growth plan, a state appeals court has issued a ruling protecting expansions of Ridgefield and La Center while potentially dealing the final blow to the county’s plans for a rural industrial land bank.
Unless further appeals are brought by the county, the decision resolves outstanding land-use disagreements while giving the county a potential path to again become eligible for certain state funds as it plans for millions of dollars of investment in its transportation infrastructure.
On Tuesday, the Washington State Court of Appeals issued a ruling in response to challenges brought against the county’s comprehensive plan, which guides land use and zoning. Shortly after being approved by the county council in 2016, local environmental group Friends of Clark County and Seattle-based Futurewise filed appeals against the comprehensive plan, arguing that it aided sprawl and failed to protect farmland.
Specifically, the groups alleged that the comprehensive plan violated state law by allowing La Center and Ridgefield to annex nearby land. They also alleged that the county improperly rezoned agricultural land by designating a rural industrial land bank on the Lagler and Ackerland dairy farms in Brush Prairie.
Clark County, as well as interested developers, argued that the challenges to the annexation were moot, because once completed, the county no longer had jurisdiction over the land. In 2017, the quasi-judicial Growth Management Hearings Board issued an order finding both the annexations and the rural industrial land bank violated state law.
The appeals court agreed that the rural industrial land bank was improper. But it found that “issues regarding the annexed lands are moot” — meaning that they will stand. Calls to the cities of La Center and Ridgefield were not returned by deadline.
“So all and all, a pretty good day for the Growth Management Hearings Board, as the Board was upheld on all issues but one,” said Tim Trohimovich, Futurewise director of planning and law, in an email.
Property rights group Clark County Citizens United also filed appeals against the comprehensive plan on grounds it violated public participation requirements and used an incorrect method to project population growth. All of their arguments were dismissed by the Growth Management Hearings Board, and that dismissal was upheld by the appeals court.
Jamie Howsley, a land-use attorney representing developers in the appeal, said that the appeals court ruling could help Clark County as it seeks sources of funding for a series of infrastructure upgrades needed to accommodate development.
On Tuesday, the county council approved a plan to fund $66.5 million in road improvements that will allow development on 2,000 acres north of Vancouver.
The funds will come from a mix of private, county and state sources. But because the Growth Management Hearings Board issued an order of invalidity against Clark County, it has been ineligible for millions in loans from the state Department of Commerce’s Public Works Trust Fund. Howsley said that the source of funding would help finance the improvements.
First, the county needs to come into full compliance with the Growth Management Hearings Board’s order, meaning it would have to drop its plans for a rural industrial land bank.
“We still have a compliance issue,” said Clark County Council Chair Eileen Quiring.
The county council has already repealed some zoning changes to come into compliance. It’s also adopted moratoriums to prevent the development of the rural industrial land bank as well as zone changes for land divisions that violate the Growth Management Hearings Board’s order.
Quiring said the council will have to determine if it wants to spend more time arguing for the rural industrial land bank in court or come into compliance with the board’s order.
The Legislature passed a change to the Growth Management Act, the state’s land-use law, to allow industrial development on a rail line in the same area of the planned rural industrial. But Quiring said the new law isn’t a “silver bullet.” She pointed out that there is a disagreement about whether the law allows the extension of needed sewer and utilities to the area. Development has also been stalled due to a legal dispute between the county and the operator of the rail line.
“It is frustrating,” said Quiring. “But we live under the Growth Management Act, and unless and until it is amended by the state, we really have to comply.”