The first step in implementing new state legislation regarding short line railroad development has reached its stride as the Clark County Councilors approved an overlay map and comprehensive plan changes during their Jan. 9 meeting.
The councilors voted unanimously to approve the measures which will allow for freight rail-dependent uses along a section of the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad that runs to the southwest of the Brush Prairie rural center.
The council action makes changes to the county’s Comprehensive Growth Management Plan, implementing changes made to the statewide Growth Management Act as a result of Engrossed Senate Bill 5517. The bill, primarily sponsored by Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, was approved in 2017.
The council also voted to approve an overlay map, pinpointing specific parcels where the kind of development allowed in ESB 5517 would be focused.
At the public hearing preceding the vote the testimony was mixed, with some individuals applauding the development and others leery over increased industrial development in rural, agricultural lands.
Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad President Eric Temple spoke positively of the proposed measures, mentioning the work of both Wilson and Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas — Pike for getting it to the governor’s desk and Wilson for finally getting the governor to sign it (initially Pike’s bill was vetoed by Gov. Jay Inslee).
Temple also thanked House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, for allowing the bill to move forward. He explained that there was “relatively no time left” during Wilson’s push for the bill.
“Had there been any amendments to the bill in the House, it probably would have failed just on time limits,” Temple said, adding that after contacting the lawmaker the bill was able to sail through.
“He was a man of his word,” Temple said.
Columbia River Economic Development Council Executive Director Mike Bomar provided context for the area as it relates to economic development. He mentioned both regional scarcity and the current economic environment, pointing out that in Battle Ground 92 percent of citizens leave the city for work. On scarcity, for parcels 50 acres or larger, there are only 12 in employment zones in the county, he said.
Bomar also referenced a letter submitted to the council by the Columbia River Economic Development Council which listed a number of project inquiries. Out of more than a dozen inquiries in 2017, all but three either required or preferred rail access.
Clark County Citizens United (CCCU) also voiced support for the project. Carol Levanen, the executive secretary of the property rights group, spoke about how historically rail lines in the county drove the economic development before the advent of automobile roads overtook the earlier mode of transportation.
“The councilors have a once in a lifetime opportunity to wake up the line,” Levanen said.
Susan Rasmussen, the group’s president, mentioned how CCCU has testified time and again on the need for rural jobs and reducing the employment disparity between urban and rural areas.
“This is long overdue, and dragging the entire regional economy down,” Rasmussen remarked.
Not everyone spoke in favor of the project. Mark Erikson, an attorney representing property owners Howard and Katherine Graman, addressed some of the concerns with the plan.
Apart from the impacts nearby industry would have on the rural character of the area, he also commented on the physical nature of the line and what the impact of more traffic — and especially more frequent stopping — would have on the existing infrastructure.
“No study has been done to show that this area has sufficient infrastructure to allow trains to repeatedly stop and transfer that force,” Erikson said, explaining that braking and stopping caused significant strain on the tracks.
Howard Graman also spoke, presenting a petition of about 20 residents in opposition of the proposal for rail use. He talked about the safety aspect of using the rail line, bringing up school buses crossing the tracks on Laurin Road at an intersection with “no gate, no signal of any kind.”
“It’s just an accident waiting to happen if we have more traffic through that area,” Graman said.
Sue Marshall spoke on behalf of Friends of Clark County, a group that has taken issue with some of what the county has implemented in their comprehensive plan update. She was concerned about agricultural land threatened by industrial development that would jeopardize existing farming and cause conflicts with residents.
Marshall also read testimony from Val Alexander, also of Friends of Clark County, where the public participation process was called into question.
“The only reason there is a rush to this project is to avoid scrutiny by informed citizens, and to secure the investment made by a few people,” Marshall read.
In a way to abet the perceived lack of participation, Marshall suggested seeking out rural and low-income representatives in and near the overlay area on the county’s Railroad Advisory Board.
Councilors responded to the concerns of the public, acknowledging the impact such a development would have.
“I think with every kind of economic development we have, it’s sort of a two-edged sword,” Councilor Jeanne Stewart said, though ultimately supporting the approval of the rail use.
Councilors stressed that what was approved that day would not immediately open the door for freight rail-dependent uses, as in the coming months the process of creating development regulations and a use list would craft what exactly could be developed in the overlay.
“In and of itself, what we do today is not going to allow for any new development, this is the first step of looking at … what kind of development could happen, how can we do that responsibly,” Councilor John Blom said.
Councilors also stressed how allowing those uses would help emancipate Clark County from the economic thrall of Portland.
“We hear almost every week here about the 70,000 people that drive across the river,” Councilor Julie Olson said. “If we do this well, and I believe that we are committed to doing it well, we will be able to start to look at bringing jobs here in Clark County.”
“It creates for us an economic engine, an identity for Clark County rather than being a bedroom community for the Portland metropolitan area,” Councilor Eileen Quiring said.