The council will take up the debate again next month on a plan to fund traffic improvements and lift urban holding in the area
CLARK COUNTY — There was plenty of discussion Tuesday night about the idea of developing the area around NE 179th Street east of I-5, but no decision will be made until at least another month.
Lacking two of its members, the Clark County Council heard from staff and the public, and asked plenty of questions, but decided to delay a decision until all five members were present. Council Chair Eileen Quiring and District 2 Councilor Julie Olson were absent on Tuesday night.
The council has spent parts of the past few months debating options to adequately fund $66.5 million in road improvements near an estimated 2,200 acres of developable land currently in urban holding. That designation means, under state law, development can’t move forward without adequate funding in place to improve roads in order to deal with increased traffic in the area.
That development could include 1,155 single-family homes, 326 apartment units, and 99 townhouses. In addition to the added housing, the area is forecasted to provide thousands of new jobs and tens-of-millions in new tax revenue for the county.
Developers have committed to $6.8 million in up-front money to help fund the road projects. Another $26.6 million would likely come in the form of surcharges and developer fees, such as an additional Traffic Impact Fee (TIF) paid in advance. One option could eventually see the Mount Vista district become one of the most expensive in terms of traffic impact fees in the state, and the Ridgefield School District is also pushing to raise school impact fees for the area as well.
Despite that, developers at Tuesday’s meeting were very much in favor of moving forward with the funding plan in order to lift urban holding.
“It’s painful for all of us,” said Stephen Horenstein, an attorney representing Killian Pacific company Three Creeks Investors LLC. “It’s gotten too expensive, but it is what it is and this is really the best we can do.”
The council has narrowed their funding options from nine to three. One would use 2.2 percent banked capacity in the road fund levy and adopt an annual one percent increase through 2024. Staff estimates that option would cost around $8.94 per household for a median priced home of $350,000.
Another option would not used the banked capacity and simply increase the road fund levy by 1 percent. That would likely raise property taxes countywide by an average of $4.49 per household annually.
The final option would not increase property taxes and would cover the funding shortfall through increased TIF costs. Four developers with agreements being considered by the council pending lifting of urban holding — Holt Homes, Killian Pacific, Hinton Development, and Wollam & Associates — would agree to pay the existing TIF of $605 per trip (a single-family home equals 10 average daily trips, or ADT), plus a $350 per ADT surcharge.
“And we are guaranteeing $2.9 million of that, up front, which no one else is doing” said Randy Printz, an attorney representing Holt Homes. “And the County came up with the number, not us. We didn’t say ‘well, we’ll offer X.’”
Printz said the $6.8 million developers are offering to pay up front is to help the county with planning for infrastructure improvements before development is fully underway.
Ridgefield property owners Jim and Allison Carlson said the urban holding designation torpedoed plans they had reached with four neighbors to sell their land in 2004.
“The problem with urban holding is there’s no timeline, there’s no way for the county to revisit it, there’s no revisions, there’s nothing to tell the homeowner this will be released at such-and-such times,” said Allison. “We’ve kind of just been held captive there and now it’s 2019. It’s been a very long time.”
The Allisons both also said they hope the council decides to pass some of the cost along to the rest of the county in the form of levy increases to fund the improvements.
“I get it, people don’t want to pay any tax,” said Jim. “One of the taxes was like $7 a year. I tip more than seven dollars for coffee, OK?”
Carlson said implementing excessive TIFs and surcharges are going to lead to unaffordable homes, high rents in the area, and turn 179th into the “home of the $25 hamburger.”
Beware the risks
While developers painted a rosy funding picture, there are concerns. Those worries made rare allies of property rights group Clark County Citizens United (CCCU) and environmental group Friends of Clark County (FOCC), at least for this hearing. Both expressed concerns over the amount taxpayers are being asked to shoulder.
“I don’t know if the public really knows what they’re paying for here,” said Carol Levanen with CCCU, “it looks like they’re paying the lion’s share.”
“What we’re trying to figure out is, is funding reasonably assured for the transportation component?” said Sue Marshall with FOCC. “And we’re not sure if we’re talking about just those four developments or the whole entire thing. It would be good to have that laid out.”
On the contrary, Horenstein maintained that the county’s share of infrastructure improvements on 179th will be much less than the cost of previous major east-west corridors.
“The county had far more money into those,” said Horenstein, “very little private money into those.”
Concerns were also raised over what would happen if an economic slowdown were to occur before full build-out of the area, meaning traffic impact fees didn’t come in as quickly as anticipated.
Ahmed Qayoumi, the county’s director of Public Works, answered that they would likely borrow against real estate excise taxes, then pay that fund back with TIF monies as they came in. The goal, he said, is to have the design phase of the project completed within the next 4-5 years in order to align with developers and the expected start of the 179th/I-5 interchange improvements funded through WSDOT.
“What I’m hearing is that there is no projection for if the TIFs or the grants, or anything else, don’t come in as expected, and that the plan is to borrow against other county funds with the hope that the TIFs do come in in order to pay them back,” said Councilor Temple Lentz, who expressed the greatest level of skepticism for the plan out of the three council members present at the meeting.
“The probability of getting grants is a lot higher when you have a complete design, you have all the permitting process, and you have an increased local share,” responded Qayoumi. “Nothing is 100 percent, but we have a higher probability of getting this project funded by that time than other projects that we do in the county.”
Lentz also took aim at county staff for again posting a number of documents to the county’s website the day before the hearing.
“Complete materials need to be posted at least one week prior, and that’s not an unreasonable request,” said Lentz. “The legal minimum may be 24 hours, but when we’re dealing with something that affects this many people, involves so much money, and has seen substantive changes literally every time we have reviewed it, more time is crucial. We can do better, and we should do better.”
The council will resume debate on the urban holding designation at their Aug. 20 meeting with all members present, and could vote on a plan to move forward at that time.