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Woodland, Cowlitz County at odds over development fees

WOODLAND — The city of Woodland is resurrecting a decades-old demand that Cowlitz County adopt development fees to help it contend with the consequences of growth taking place outside the city limits.

City officials say city residents have for years been asked unfairly to subsidize that growth and the pressure and wear and tear it puts on schools, roads and other public facilities.

“I take this very personally,” Mayor Will Finn said in a recent interview. “I care about this city. I signed up to do this job to protect (the residents). … Clearly, you’re not going to stop residential development within Cowlitz County … and we deserve to be compensated.”

During 2016 through 2018, developers built about 300 single-family homes in areas near Woodland but outside the city limits, including Ariel, Chelatchie, Amboy and Yacolt, according to data supplied by the city. Had one-time housing development fees been in place, Finn estimates, the city would have collected about $1.3 million in that span.

The money could have been used for the city’s schools, parks and roads, which are under pressure from development both within and outside Woodland, Finn said.

“If those same houses were built in the city, we would get that money directly as part of the building permit process,” said Woodland Community Development Director Travis Goddard.

Bonds and loans school districts take out to pay for new buildings and capital projects are financed through property taxes on all properties within the school district boundaries, including rural areas. Development fees are one-time payments governments can use to deal with the impacts of growth.

Clark County follows the state’s Growth Management Act, which allows counties to charge one-time impact fees on developers to help manage growth. Cowlitz County doesn’t follow the GMA, and has so far declined to collect fees under the State Environmental Policy Act, which it currently follows.

Woodland residents and developers pay those one-time impact fees when new homes are built within city limits. Clark County residents near the city pay school impact fees, which average about $5,900 per house, but don’t pay for road or park funds. And Cowlitz County residents near the city don’t pay any of the fees.

“Anytime a home is built in (Cowlitz) County, there’s no school impact fees going to the school,” Woodland City Council member Benjamin Fredricks said. “So every time we need to build a new high school, the city of Woodland taxpayers (who pay the development fee) end up subsidizing the ratepayers in the county. It’s a concern.”

About 50 percent of Woodland School District students live in Woodland, 36 percent live in Cowlitz County but outside the city, and the remaining 14 percent live in Clark County. The school district estimates K-12 enrollment could increase by as much as 33 percent, or 810 students, over the next six years.

“The school district has gone on record saying they’d like to see Cowlitz County collect impact fees,” Goddard said. “Woodland and Clark County are starting to pay a disproportionate amount of the debt for new costs of development.”

Goddard estimates that per house, those impact fees are worth about eight years of property taxes.

Another issue is Woodland’s notoriously clog-prone Exit 21 off Interstate 5. Freeway traffic often locks the intersection up, and Finn said county development is exacerbating the problem by adding even more cars.

Cowlitz County Commissioner Arne Mortensen, whose commissioner district includes Woodland, acknowledged the intersection is a challenge.

“The question is, should people be allowed to build when the traffic already is bad?” Mortensen said in an email. “Well, for new buyers one might say, caveat emptor (buyer beware), but for those already in the area is it decent to ruin their access to their property by overloading an already overloaded road system? I am inclined to side with the (existing) property owners, but I don’t know what that would translate in terms of action.”

Longtime conflict

Finn suggests that the Cowlitz County commissioners start charging developers mitigation fees for new developments under SEPA.

But this conflict between the city and county goes back at least two decades. Back in 2007, then-county attorney Ron Marshall raised doubts as to whether implementing SEPA fees as the city suggested would be legal or fair to the rest of the county. County commissioners turned down proposals to implement the fees in 2000 and 2005.

Commissioner Dennis Weber said commissioners don’t have authority to impose development fees for just one portion of the county, and there isn’t political support for countywide fees. Mortensen said he opposes implementing the SEPA fees because it would violate the lines of authority between the county and municipalities.

And “adding SEPA fees to please some special interest is problematic,” Mortensen said.

Find a way

County Community Development Director Elaine Placido raised another issue: SEPA reviews apply only to developments with at least 20 single-family units or 25 multifamily units. In 2019, Placido said, only two (or about 9 percent of) new housing development projects that had a Woodland address underwent SEPA review, and each were reviewed for the property they were on, not the houses built on them.

Finn’s response: If Clark County can find a way, so can Cowlitz.

“What is their plan for the city of Woodland?” Finn said. “I want to know what (Mortensen’s) plan is. Tell me what I can do, what he will support to make the impact better. If that means shutting down residential development in the county, great. I’ll shut my mouth.”

Weber said he supports the idea of Woodland expanding its boundaries and annexing areas such as the Woodland Bottoms. That would allow Woodland to start laying claim to the county areas that are leading to growth-related headaches.

“If they can annex the property … we’ll do whatever we can to help facilitate the development,” Weber said.

Finn supports the idea too, but county residents in the area fiercely resist being absorbed into the city, officials say. Yet it’s inevitable that Woodland’s boundaries will grow, Finn said.

The city and county aren’t likely to come to compromise any time soon, but Finn says the issue isn’t going away.

“The city of Woodland is growing,” Finn said. “You can’t tap us on the head and say ‘Thanks, go let the adults talk and take care of business.’ We are one of the adults. … It’s about time we start having the conversation about our future together.”


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