A drive around Brush Prairie reveals it as a place with a dual persona. Horses graze in pastures across the street from tightly wound subdivisions. A weathered barn sits behind a sign advertising 39 acres as “sold.” An apartment complex flanks the Clark County Saddle Club’s outdoor arena, soon to be relocated to a more sylvan spot toward Battle Ground.
We know Clark County’s population is growing — the latest census estimate was 481,857 residents, up 14.84 percent since 2010. But growth doesn’t spread evenly. This sizable census tract, bordered by Northeast 99th Street, state Highway 503 and Northeast 172nd Avenue stretching toward Battle Ground, has grown 133.04 percent since 2010. That makes it the county’s fastest-growing.
As the 2020 census nears, looking back at where Clark County grew offers clues into its future as a place of contrasts, a place increasingly more suburban than rural.
The answer to where and how growth occurs is, in some ways, straightforward.
Oliver Orjiako, director of Clark County Community Planning, said it boils down to zoning and available land. If an area is zoned for residential development and there is developable land, that’s where the new housing will go.
That’s why Brush Prairie is booming. The area was brought into Vancouver’s urban growth boundary in 2007, and much of its former farmland is now zoned residential. It had great potential for new houses and new people, and it still does. The county recently helped the U.S. Census Bureau identify new addresses for the upcoming census; many were in this tract that includes part of Hockinson and southeast Battle Ground.
In a Columbian story published March 10, 2007, reporter Michael Andersen described future residential and commercial projects poised to change the landscape after the area was marked for inclusion in the urban growth boundary.
At the time, Clark County Commissioner Marc Boldt said “big changes” were coming and new homes were needed as a pressure valve for fast-growing Vancouver.
Here’s the kicker: The county’s slowest-growing census tract lies adjacent to Brush Prairie. A small area, bordered by state Highway 503 to the west, Northeast 137th Avenue to the east, Padden Parkway to the south and 99th Street to the north, has seen just 0.21 percent population growth since 2010.
Why? Well, it’s full. Even in 2010, there was little available land in this census tract, and some of it was considered “critical,” meaning there were potential environmental concerns or geologic hazards, such as steep slopes, wetlands or habitat areas.
The vacant buildable lands model is updated yearly to show where development can occur. In some places, there’s no room for more houses.
That’s the case with the county’s other slowest-growing areas. It doesn’t necessarily mean people don’t want to move to these neighborhoods; it means additional people can’t move there because there isn’t much, if any, new housing.
An area bordered by Northeast 162nd Avenue, 18th Street and Southeast First Street has grown just 0.81 percent since 2010. This area is split between east Vancouver and unincorporated Clark County.
Chad Eiken, director of community and economic development for the city, said he’s not surprised at all about that area’s slow population growth. Most of the tract is zoned for commercial and industrial uses. It’s also home to old gravel quarries, English Estates Winery and the Humane Society for Southwest Washington. Pacific Community Park lies in one corner and Harmony Sports Complex fills another. There’s neither space nor zoning to accommodate new residences.
Camas: Slow growth
Downtown Camas and the Port of Camas-Washougal area grew by only 1.14 percent between 2010 and 2019. The historic, tree-lined streets downtown attract patrons, and businesses have come and gone over the years, but residents? While newer luxury homes dot nearby hillsides, downtown seems frozen in time. There aren’t many new places to live — at least for now. Changing in zoning and Camas’ comprehensive plan aim to offer more places to live downtown.
Thirty new apartments with commercial space on the ground floor will open on Northeast Sixth Avenue, and more residential development will go up behind that building. Carrie Schulstad, executive director of the Downtown Camas Association, said the organization hopes for more condominiums and apartments.
“In order for our historic downtown to truly thrive, we need more people living downtown and using its restaurants, shops and services. Thoughtful mixed-use development is always our goal,” she wrote in an email.
Vancouver: Density pays
In contrast, downtown Vancouver is growing rapidly. A triangle-shaped downtown census tract including the Arnada neighborhood and blocks east of Main Street is the third-fastest growing area in Clark County. Its population grew by 51.88 percent between 2010 and 2019.
Eiken noted that despite being small (less than half a square mile), in the last several years six apartment buildings were built in the tract, and more are in the works. Much of Arnada is zoned for single-family residences, but it’s bordered by commercial districts at its south and west ends that allow apartments. The city’s multifamily tax exemption program has led developers to build there.
Linda Glover, vice president of Vancouver’s Downtown Association, a city councilor and owner of Divine Consign, said that as the number of downtown businesses grew, more people wanted to live near where they worked. And as more people live where they work, or just choose the downtown lifestyle, amenities and services follow.
In the 3 1/2 months that Michael Walker has been executive director of the downtown association, he’s seen new places open due to growing foot traffic. With more people, he said, downtown is challenged to ensure it’s attractive, clean and safe with adequate sidewalks, bike lanes, public transportation, lighting and other infrastructure.
He noted downtown residents may feel more included in the community.
“Through density, it increases community,” Walker said. “It creates a really resilient place.”
Those wanting a downtown grocery store may be frustrated to hear there’s still not enough population to support one, but Glover thinks the tipping point is close — noting there are already essential services such as health care and veterinary clinics — and that downtown will take off once it secures a grocer.
Fast-growing Ridgefield is getting its supermarket. Rosauer’s, a chain new to Clark County, is nearing completion.
The population of Ridgefield’s primary census tract grew 65.47 percent since the 2010 Census. Ridgefield School District Superintendent Nathan McCann described the city, now home to about 9,000, as “geographically blessed.” It’s removed from Clark County’s major urban areas but accessible to them via Interstate 5.
“It’s a wonderful community that has historically been a great place to live,” McCann said.
For students, population growth has resulted in new programming and opportunities that didn’t exist just a few years ago. The growth, though, can create a disconnect between what Ridgefield was, what it is, and what it will be.
“Sometimes it can feel like there’s not a piece of earth that’s not being moved and developed right now. That can create some anxiety,” said McCann. For the school district, running bonds and building new schools has become a cycle. “It’s a scramble continually to keep up with the growth.”
In some ways, Ridgefield exhibits the dual nature that Brush Prairie has. Ridgefield is home to a sleepy downtown, old barns and open spaces, but there is also a major amphitheater and a casino within reach. New homes are built close together.
“I often talk about how it’s not even the same district as when I arrived,” McCann said, who came to Ridgefield in the summer of 2014.