Friends of Clark County says committee forming the plan is biased and unbalanced
CLARK COUNTY — Development is coming to the Chelatchie Prairie shortline railroad. That’s a given. The only debate at this point is exactly where, and what kind of businesses will be allowed to move in.
“We’re going down this track,” says Clark County Chair Marc Boldt.
Last year, the state legislature approved changes that will allow rail-dependent businesses to use short line railroads, like the Chelatchie Prairie line. The county is hopeful the change will ultimately represent an economic boon to the region, bringing high-paying jobs.
On Tuesday, the council approved beginning Phase II of the Rail Dependent Uses plan, but not without some sharp criticism. Phase II is the public input phase, and includes the formation of a 12-member Freight Rail Dependent Use Advisory Committee. It will bring in the Port of Vancouver, the city of Battle Ground, the Columbia River Economic Development Council, and four members of the Rail Advisory Board, along with Eric Temple, Ex-officio with Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad. On Tuesday, the council voted to bring in representatives from the Greater Brush Prairie Neighborhood Association, the County Parks Advisory Board, and the farm bureau.
One group left off the committee is Friends of Clark County. A fact that the conservation group’s Board President Sue Marshall, was quick to point out.
“We have been unsettled by the process to date,” Marshall told the council, “The first goal of the proposed plan states that you will ensure broad participation by identifying key interest groups, solicit input from the public, and ensuring no single group or interest dominates the process.”
But that hasn’t been happening, says Marshall. She says the groups on the committee have a vested interest in seeing rail-dependent businesses enter the county.
“Five out of the 12 members represent rail interests,” Marshall says, “and a majority of the existing Railroad Advisory Committee fill nine seats, which is 75 percent of the committee. So clearly this represents a single interest group, and we are confident that they will dominate the process.”
Friends of Clark County also alleges that several members of the committee would benefit financially from Freight Rail dependent businesses moving in, and that those members should recuse themselves.
At a work session in February it had been recommended that Friends of Clark County be included in the Freight Rail Dependent Use Advisory Committee, but Councilor John Blom expressed concern about the group’s previous legal actions against the county.
“It seems likely we may be headed to litigation with them over this again,” Blom said. “So, I think inviting them into the huddle when we know they’re likely to sue us at the end of all this makes me very nervous.”
In a letter to the council, Friends of Clark County attorney David McDonald said including the group on the committee likely could have allowed them to help shape a plan that would avoid any legal challenges.
“The message the Council sent is clear,” McDonald’s letter reads. “If a group or individual does not by (sic) into the desired result at the front end, they will be excluded. We are not sure whether as an organization, or as individuals, we should be angry at the shortsighted exclusion of our members from the advisory committee, or saddened as your arbitrary exclusion of our members from the advisory committee just confirms our previous perception that this public participation process is flawed.”
Two other community members also spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, expressing concern over potential noise of the developments that come in, and the increased rail traffic, as well as a clearer definition of who in those areas should be notified of any meetings.
The proposed development area of the Chelatchie Prairie line extends from north of 119th Street up to 149th, on the west side of SR-500.
The first meeting of the Freight Rail Dependent Use Advisory Committee is scheduled for March 28th. The first public Open House is tentatively scheduled for July 11 at Prairie High School.