County buildable lands report ends nearly four-month-long hearing

Clark County may finally have the technical resources required by the state in order to eventually make changes to how the county plans for growth.

During its June 7 meeting, the Clark County Council directed county staff to place a resolution to approve a Buildable Lands Report and Vacant Buildable Lands Model onto the council’s June 21 meeting schedule. After months of delay through a protracted public hearing that started in February, the council is finally moving forward on work required to eventually complete an update to the county’s Comprehensive Growth Management Plan in 2025.

Generally, the model and report analyze the types and amount of buildable land available in the county through 2035. According to the analysis, the county has sufficient land for residential, commercial and industrial development through that timeframe.

That analysis has been under scrutiny during the months of the hearing, which was extended three times to the June meeting.

Jennifer Baker, president of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, questioned how much of the land zoned for employment purposes — commercial and industrial — would end up being developed. Baker said the findings in the report will stifle recruitment efforts, especially in manufacturing.

She said in the last 17 months, the council has been unable to place 13 employers who are looking for 20 acres or more, each of which have the potential to bring in more than 100 jobs, and as many as 3,000.

“The difference between the model and reality culminates not only in the amount of the employment land, but the buildability of that land in practice,” Baker said.

Tim Schauer, president and CEO of MacKay Sposito, came to the June 7 meeting to “advocate, even plea” for a revision on assumptions on how much commercial and industrial land would actually be developed, per the report. Schauer asked for changes that would drop assumptions on what land in both zoning designations would be developed to as low as 10% in critical areas, or land with ecological and geographical constraints.

“While these three aggressive assumptions may have been more valid in the last 20 years, they are no longer reasonable, no longer realistic, and frankly out of sync with our community’s values,” Schauer said.

He said the model used in the report was “precise, but not accurate, and the consequences will be significant, if not dire” should it not be adjusted.

Justin Wood, who represented the Clark County Association of Realtors, mentioned a study by ECONorthwest, which showed Washington has the lowest housing unit to household ratio in the nation. Wood said the current comprehensive plan for the county calls for no housing type to be more than 75% of housing stock, though Vancouver has surpassed that with multifamily units.

Both Wood and Eric Golemo, a member of an advisory committee formed to steer the direction of the model and report, said a change by the council which was approved during one of their regular “council time” proceedings would be detrimental to the model and the report. The change allowed the use of residential densities that had already been achieved as opposed to ones based on a target.

Golemo said he was “dumbfounded” at the decision to go with the achieved density, noting it isn’t a requirement by state statute. Wood said using that density model will only aggravate an already tight housing market. Currently, Clark County has a median home price of $528,000, he said.

Councilor Richard “Dick” Rylander moved to reconsider going with achieved density over the target density. Rylander said at the time he believed it was a requirement to use that density for the modeling.

“There appears to me to be in the statutes considerable allowance for the county to approach this from a number of different angles,” Rylander said.

His motion did not pass. Rylander and council chair Karen Bowerman voted for the reconsideration.

Different Clark County city staff members also raised concerns that were counter to what those of the residential building industries brought forth.

Battle Ground Community Development Director Sam Crummett said based on his city’s 2021 land use master plan, the city has sufficient capacity for residential needs, compared to a 143-acre deficit in the report.

“We do need additional acreage for lands for jobs, really to compete locally and nationally to bring in some larger employers,” Crummett said.

Ridgefield Community Development Director Claire Lust said the report did not account for residential growth in nonresidential-zoned land. The city uses mixed-use overlays which would allow for that type of development.

Lust also countered the perception of a lack of supply. In Ridgefield, nearly 2,000 new builds were completed between April 2018 and April 2022. Even with that increase of supply, the median home price increased from $395,000 to $636,000, or about 61%.

Lust noted houses aren’t being sold to individuals but to investors who rent them out, going against the idea that a greater housing supply leads to the opportunity for homeowners to build generational wealth.

“Certainly supply is part of the affordability equation, however it’s not a simple solution,” Lust said.

Councilor Gary Medvigy didn’t agree with the assertions of the cities when they said they had enough residential stock.

“It’s very patently obvious to anyone who looks, we have a housing shortage. We are so far behind,” Medvigy said. “For the model to show that we have 1,400 acres in excess for residential housing, it just doesn’t pass the common sense test.”

The councilor opined on the gulf between stakeholders and what the report has shown.

“We have had hearing after hearing after hearing, some machinations, I think, all for the positive to get the best possible report that we can,” Medvigy said. “We’ve explored so much of this model yet we still have this huge disagreement … as far as kind of ignoring what is happening on the ground.”

David McDonald, another member on the model and report’s advisory committee, said the requests from the building industry are mostly about policy, whereas what was under consideration that day was about data, “not what you want to happen on the ground, but what is happening on the ground.”

Councilor Julie Olson said she agreed with most of the people who testified, including those from the building industry and the cities. Olson echoed the focus of the model and the report is based on the data available.

“There’s no dispute about what we heard today,” Olson said. “The issue is where we deal with these questions.”

Councilor Temple Lentz said the recommendations heard from building and development proponents can be achieved on the policy end, “however this is not the place for those things to occur.”