County Council delays 179th area street funding decision

Councilors cited a lack of public input and quickly changing information for the delay

CLARK COUNTY — The Clark County Council is pumping the brakes on plans to fast-track development around the 179th Street / I-5 area.

“There’s a lot of work going on here, and I appreciate the hard work of staff and of the committee but I really feel like every time I get a new packet there is dramatically different information,” said District 1 Councilor Temple Lentz at Tuesday’s meeting, “and every time we have a council time meeting where we talk about this there is dramatically different information.”

The council was presented with seven options to fully fund traffic improvements needed in the area before urban holding can be lifted on 2,100 acres stretching from south of the fairgrounds, up north of 199th, along 179th to a section of land southwest of 179th and 50th Avenue.

According to county staff, a total of $66,400,000 is needed to fully fund traffic improvements and connectors near the 179th/I-5 interchange. With the approval of a 1 percent road fund levy increase last year, various grants, and other one-time funding, the county estimates they are still short of the necessary amount by $12,308,000, after a $6.8 million contribution by local developers.

The funding options feature a mix of potential developer fees, increased Traffic Impact Fees (TIFs), and further road and general fund levy increases through the use of banked capacity. Depending on which option the council chooses, they would need to issue bonds for as much as the full $12.3 million.

“That’s a scary amount of bonding if the market were to suddenly flatten and we didn’t have this income coming in,” said District 4 Councilor Gary Medvigy, noting that the county’s estimate of $34 million in annual revenue based on a full build-out of the area would take a long time to be fully realized.

“I’m not sure how long it’s going to take, but we need to make sure that we meet our comprehensive plan requirements,” responded Public Works Director Ahmad Qayoumi, noting that they’re on a time limit to lift urban holding in the area in order to remain in compliance with the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA).

Medvigy then asked if the county could simply look at lifting the urban holding designation in smaller chunks, as funding becomes available.

“The phasing or partial lifting would be extremely difficult to monitor,” responded Qayoumi.

The question of schools

One piece of new information that came to light on Tuesday was a letter from the city of Ridgefield and the school district, urging the council to consider raising school impact fees in the development area.

The Ridgefield School District recently opened two new schools from a 2017 building bond passed by voters, but Mayor Don Stose, speaking on behalf of Citizens for Ridgefield Schools, said even that hasn’t been enough to address the growth there.

“All the schools are at or above student capacity as we speak,” said Stose. “When the two new schools opened in August of 2018 both schools were nearly at or at capacity because of the strong growth in Ridgefield. Portable classrooms are already on order for these two new schools.”

And voters in Ridgefield narrowly turned down a third building bond earlier this year which would have funded a new K-8 school and an expansion of the high school. Stose said school impact fees in the county-run portions of the Ridgefield School District haven’t been adjusted since 2016. Inside city limits, developers currently pay $2,300 per housing unit to go for schools.

“There is a lot to be desired in housing and in businesses,” said Ridgefield Council member Sandra Day. “Don’t forget your good quality schools.”

County staff responded that school impact fee adjustments are generally looked at in July, to which the Ridgefield designation responded they would gladly be “on your backs” about the issue then.

More public input

In a rare move, members of pro-growth Clark County Citizens United (CCCU) and environmental group Friends of Clark County actually agreed, saying that they felt the council needed to slow down and get more public feedback before moving ahead with selecting a funding plan.

“Supporting documents for this hearing today were posted just yesterday,” noted Sue Marshall with Friends of Clark County. “The public needs to understand what the full build-out of the urban holding area will look like and what it is proposed to actually cause.”

Marshall also noted that little has been said about what options might exist in the area for bicyclists, pedestrians, and public transit. Councilor John Blom and Council Chair Eileen Quiring said those conversations have been going on, with C-TRAN working on a proposal for bus service in the area.

Susan Rasmussen with CCCU said she would also prefer that more time be given for public input, and said they favor putting more of the financial burden for area improvements on developers, rather than taxpayers.

“The $47.4 million represents your constituent’s hard-earned dollars,” said Rasmussen, referring to the total expected county burden for the area. “When a landowner wants to build on his property, they foot the entire bill. They don’t get the benefit of county shares.”

Medvigy agreed that taxing homeowners across the county to fund development in a single area seemed unfair to him.

“If we’re going to look at taxing everyone to do this it just, to me, means that there’s an imbalance in what we’re doing,” Medvigy said. “We don’t have enough developers to support the cost of these capital improvements. We should put it to a vote to everyone in the county if we’re going to ask everyone in the county to pay for this.”

For her part, Quiring said she’s eager to see the area’s urban holding designation lifted after years of stalled talks. “I am reluctant, however, to place upon people a large tax burden. Even though it will benefit regionally, I worry about the Dorothys who are on a fixed income and have to worry about paying their taxes.”

Next steps

County Manager Shawn Henessee said he would look into creating a written framework within the next three weeks for what the next steps would be to move forward with the project. That would give the public a week to examine the proposals before the council again takes up the idea in their first June meeting.

“We were never asking the council to make a finalized decision tonight,” said Henessee. “The lifting of urban holding will come at a later stage. Hopefully as soon as possible, because this project has been in abeyance for a long time.”

The lifting of urban holding in the area can’t happen until the county has proven “reasonable funding” for traffic infrastructure improvements to handle the additional 5,600 expected housing units at full build-out. The county is pushing now to concur with the state’s GMA, and to get ahead of the 179th/I-5 interchange upgrade. $50 million in state funding for that project is expected to become available in 2023.

“I know, on a project like this, there’s always going to be somebody that is gonna have a disagreement with it,” said Henessee. “I understand that.”

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About The Author

Chris Brown comes to Clark County Today with 15 years of local news experience as a reporter, editor, and anchor at KXL News Radio and KOIN-6 TV in Portland. In 2016, he won an Oregon Association of Broadcaster's award for Best Investigative Reporting for a series on America's Violent Youth. He has also been awarded by the Associated Press for Best Breaking News coverage as editor of Portland's Morning News following the 2015 school shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. The second oldest of eight home-schooled children, Brown graduated from high school two years early. After several odd jobs, he earned an internship at KXL Radio, eventually working his way into a full-time job. Brown has lived in Clark County his entire life, and is very excited at the opportunity to now focus full-time on the significant stories happening in his own back yard, rather than across “the river.’’ After a few years in Vancouver, he recently moved back to Battle Ground with his wife and two young daughters. When he's not working to report what's happening in Clark County, Brown enjoys spending time with his family, playing music, taking pictures, or working in the yard. He also actually does enjoy long walks on the beach, and sunsets.

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