Does Clark County have enough space for projected growth?

On Tuesday, Jun the Clark County Council will hold a public hearing on the updated Buildable Lands Report. The county has until June 30 to adopt the updated report to meet the state legislative deadline and submit it to the Department of Commerce.

The report is designed to answer one question: Does Clark County have enough vacant buildable land to meet the county’s projected residential and economic growth?

It’s far from an easy answer and depends on who you ask.

According to the report, “there is sufficient capacity” to accommodate the county’s projected jobs and housing growth.

“The report is an evaluation of how we’ve grown since we adopted our comprehensive plan for 2015-2035,” County Planner Jose Alvarez said. “What we’re looking at is the growth that has occurred and whether we’ve achieved the density we planned for in that time frame.”

Capacity estimates are taken from the Vacant Buildable Lands Model, the primary tool used to develop the report, which relies on the parameters defined by the 2015-2035 comprehensive growth plan.
According to the Buildable Lands Report, there are 4,476 net buildable acres in Clark County urbanized areas remaining.
Alvarez said the advisory committee for the buildable lands report, which began its review in 2019, has made recommendations to improve the model and make it more relative to what is “occurring on the ground.”

“We know there are some things that have happened, particularly in Vancouver, where there’s a lot of residential development that’s occurred in their downtown city center,” Alvarez said. “We know the model doesn’t accommodate that, just doesn’t assume there will be any residential development on those commercial lands. That’s one thing we knew had to be addressed.”

While residential development in Vancouver’s downtown area accounts for much of the residential growth, it’s not the only area of the city to have commercial properties developed for residential use, Alvarez added.

Eric Golemo, from the Building Industry Association of Clark County, said using higher densities driven by these kinds of developments creates problems down the road.

“Those numbers were built on a certain type of housing product, which is mid-rise and high-rise urban development and multi-family housing development,” Golemo said. “It doesn’t account for the opportunity for home ownership; it doesn’t account for the opportunity to own your unit and benefit from the appreciation. That’s what builds generational wealth.”

Golemo said using numbers from those one-time projects and projecting them forward could also limit the types of development, such as single-family homes, in the future.

“They’re making housing a lot less attainable,” he said.

From 2016 to 2020, there were 21,121 housing units built within the county’s urban growth area. Development in Vancouver and its unincorporated urban area accounted for 71 percent of the housing built, while Ridgefield was at 11 percent and Camas was at 9 percent. Of the homes built in Vancouver during that time period, 76 percent were multi-family housing units.

According to the buildable lands report, there are 4,476 net buildable acres in Clark County urbanized areas remaining — enough to accommodate development through 2035.

“We have enough land to accommodate the population we planned for in that planning period, from 2015-2035,” Alvarez said. “I think what you hear, a lot of people think we planned for too low of a number and the population is growing faster than what was projected. But that’s a 20-year plan, and we’re five years into it. Based on the plan that was adopted, we have sufficient capacity to accommodate that population projection.”

Jamie Howsley, who represents the building industry on the county’s Development and Engineering Advisory Board, disagrees with the report’s findings.

“The county believes they are meeting their obligation,” Howsley said. “There are those of us that are in the profession that do land development from day to day — we’re in the trenches — that feels there’s a disconnect between what the county feels its obligation is and what the reality is on the ground.”

Howsley said the county’s urban growth area does not have enough vacant land to meet future needs.

Golemo agreed with Howsley’s assessment.

“From being in the field and being in the industry, you can tell there’s definitely an issue with affordability,” Golemo said. “And there’s also an issue with availability, which drives up prices. I think we have a huge shortage of buildable land to meet our needs in the county.”

While there are other factors contributing to the rise in housing prices, Golemo said, the lack of land that can be developed is key.

Howsley said developers have been telling the county for some time that the population and job-growth numbers coming from the state and used in the report and model are “woefully low.” He said the estimates were artificially adjusted because of the 2008 Great Recession and don’t reflect how the county has rebounded since then.

“We’ve grown at more than 2 percent a year on an annualized growth basis,” Howsley said, “and in some jurisdictions — like Ridgefield, which has been the fastest-growing city in the state a number of years running — the actual population increase has exceeded what was predicted.”

Howsley said the county has two options to meet the population and jobs targets. One is strategic up-zoning, changing the zoning code to allow for a higher-value use.

“The second way would be to expand the urban growth area boundary,” he said.

However, Alvarez said expanding that boundary is not yet called for.

“If we weren’t meeting our capacity targets, we would have to come up with reasonable measures to try to achieve those density targets in lieu of boundary expansion,” Alvarez said. “But that’s not the case.”

He noted that all jurisdictions have met or exceeded their density targets.

Golemo said the way that the county’s model looks at housing needs must change.

“We need a variety of housing types. We need to find opportunities for everyone in our community. High-density urban development is part of the solution. Cottage housing, ADUs (accessory dwelling units), small-lot subdivisions are all part of the solution,” Golemo said. “We should be looking at the vacant buildable lands model based on those categories, not in one lump sum.”

Alvarez said the county will review, and may change, the population estimates during the next update to the comprehensive plan.

“We’re required to start a new planning process in the next year or two and be done by 2025,” he said. “That’s going to be a new 20-year horizon, from 2025 to 2045. We still haven’t gotten any population numbers from the Office of Financial Management. That’s when we’ll re-look at those population projections.”

The state’s Office of Financial Management provides low, median and high estimates, and the council will select which estimates to use.

“Our role will be to coordinate with the jurisdictions to allocate that population based on their existing capacity,” Alvarez added. “Those individual jurisdictions will determine whether they need to expand their urban growth boundaries or not.”