Thursday, May 1, 2008

Interesting Clark County Rural Initiative Essay

The following is a letter written to the Reflector by Rich Carson. Mr. Carson also maintains an excellent web site, "Common Sense", which contains a collection of informative and entertaining essays he has written on the subject of and/or related to planning and community development.

The Problem with the Rural Initiative

by Rich Carson, former Planning Director for Clark County and a resident of Hockinson

The Board of Clark County Commissioners recently announced that they have decided to delay its rural planning program until after this November’s election. The obvious question for the voter is, “Why is this program so politically sensitive that the board doesn’t want to talk about it before the election?”

The so-called “rural comprehensive plan” program is to be a two-year review of rural land uses that could shrink minimum lot sizes, enlarge the county’s seven rural centers, and find ways to improve the viability of rural resource activities in timber, agriculture and mining. So why wait for an election? 

The public relations answer was that since Commissioner Marc Boldt is up for election, it would be prudent to wait for the outcome, the theory being that a new commissioner might not think the rural initiative is a good thing to pursue. The problem with this answer is that the other two commissioners are committed to the rural initiative no matter what the election outcome is.

Many property owners in the rural area have long waited for this promised initiative in the hope that they could reduce their minimum lot sizes, in terms of rural zoning, and create more rural residential lots. As the former planning director for the county, I know that (1) the commissioners have promised many rural land owners that a new day is coming in terms of rural land development, and (2) the board knows that it would face an insurmountable legal challenge in allowing more rural lots. 

The problem is that in the process of separating urban from rural planning in the 2007 comprehensive plan process, the board of county commissioners transferred the future rural land development potential to the urban area. Unfortunately, no one told the rural land owners that “the cupboard was bare.” And that certainly is not a very good message to deliver to the voters of a very rural district before an election.

The facts are these:

·The 1994 comprehensive plan acknowledged that population trends in the county had historically been 80 percent urban and 20 percent rural area, and they planned for that.

·The 2004 comprehensive plan update validated that the urban-rural population split had historically continued at 80 percent urban and 20 percent rural.

·As part of the 2004 comprehensive planning process, I asked for an unofficial estimate of how much capacity the rural area had in terms of allocating population to the rural area. The answer was that there were enough vacant, buildable lots to accommodate an estimated 40,000 people. And at 20 percent the land supply matched the population demand exactly.

·But in the 2007 comprehensive plan, the board adopted a policy that allocates land for the future population at 90 percent urban and 10 percent rural, and at 10 percent, the 2007 comprehensive plan artificially projected the rural population need to be only 19,000 people. 

So the obvious question is, “Why did the board of county commissioners cut the rural land allocation in half?” The answer is they wanted more people to live in the urban area. That is their right as our elected representatives. However, it is also our right, as rural land owners, to question the wisdom of their ignoring reality in favor of inflating the urban growth boundary.

Unfortunately, the historic demand for rural property is actually increasing nationally. According to the 2000 Census, more people are moving into the rural area than in the past. There are several reasons for this. First, technology now allows people to access the Internet and television programming via DSL and satellite. Second, more and more people are telecommuting. The advent of Internet access means that people can spend part or all of their time working from home with full access to their organization’s computer data bases. Third, people can now do business over the Internet from their rural home and have their purchases or business documents delivered to their home by UPS, FedEx or the Postal Service.

The board should have addressed the rural land issue as part of the 2007 comprehensive plan update process. That would have solved any legal issues and forced a discussion about what was a fair urban/rural allocation. However, their decision to separate the urban versus rural land questions has effectively and legally closed the door to that possibility. Even county’s planning staff noted that they were going to have to be careful of running afoul of the Growth Management Act. 

I applaud the board of commissioners for taking a hard look at how they can improve land use activities in the rural area. It is important to find ways to make rural resource activities such as farming, forestry and mining operations, more economically viable. They can also look at making changes to rural centers in terms of allowing different commercial and employer uses.
However, they also need to be upfront with rural property owners that there is no possibility of increased rural residential development. It is no longer a realistic legal option. The only way to create more rural land development capacity is through the comprehensive plan update process – which won’t happen again for probably at least five years. The lessons to be learned from this experience are:

(1) that it is never a good thing to ignore historical fact as a matter of public policy, and

(2) that a “comprehensive” review of the county’s land use must include a discussion with urban and rural property owners at the same time. Rural landowners should not be put in the position of being second class citizens.

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