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The Freight Rail Dependent Uses (FRDU), a Changing Landscape, and the Vacant Buildable Lands Model (VBLM): Breakdown of the June 26th Clark County Council Decision, What’s Next, and Call to Action!

July 8, 2024 in Comprehensive Plan & Growth Management Act, Farmland & Forests, Mining, Railroad, Responsible Development


(Photo of the Lagler property in Brush Prairie from Sierra Club- Loo Wit Chapter member)

Did you find yourself perplexed following the Clark County Council meeting on June 25th on the Freight Rail Dependent Uses (FRDU) consultant contract discussion, as well as the spontaneous subsequent work session on the topic the following morning? So were we!

After review and investigation, we are here to break it all down for you, including the implications of the decision made and what’s next in the FRDU process (including a Clark County Time agenda item on July 10th).

Background on the FRDU overlay and consultant contract

First, let’s start with the basics: Over the past year, the Clark County Council held several meetings to address a path forward for the FRDU component of the county comprehensive planning process. The Council decided to issue a Request for Proposal (RFP) for a consultant to do work with the community and county staff to study and recommend development regulations for implementing the current Freight Rail Dependent Uses (FRDU) overlay located in Brush Prairie near Glenwood and Laurin Schools.The current overlay consists mostly of the Lagler/Ackerland Dairy Farm property located on the WEST side of Highway 503. 

To clarify: the only overlay that exists thus far is the one in Brush Prairie (almost 400 acres). So, while the rail operator (PVJR) has proposed that the Council designate all of the land along the 33-mile length of railroad, including forest and agricultural lands, residential areas, part of the City of Battleground, a swath of territory along the east fork of the Lewis River, and Chelatchie Prairie, for heavy industrial (IH) and/or railroad industrial (IR) zonings, and while it is also the goal of the Clark County Railroad Advisory Board (RRAB) to expand the FRDU overlay to new areas all along the rail line, the consultant’s scope of work was limited to creating development regulations to apply to the current overlay. However, it is important to note that any development regulations adopted would apply to any future FRDU overlays the Council could approve.

So, the County searched for a consultant, selected one, and then placed the contract on the agenda Council approval on March 25th, 2024.  Much public comment streamed in from the residents and FOCC opposing the contract. On the morning of the hearing, the County Manager inexplicably removed the item from consideration.

On June 25th, the FRDU consultant contract made its way back on the agenda. The contract continued to authorize the spending of $100,000 in taxpayer funds for a consultant on the very unpopular FRDU at a time when we still do not know the future of our relationship with the rail operator. If you aren’t up to snuff on that background, no worries! Check out our previous articles on the FRDU and the County’s short-line railroad here:

Public concerns went ignored

As before, public testimony on June 25th shared a pattern of familiar themes: lack of transparency; no cost benefit analysis; the need to pause given the uncertainty with the rail operator being investigated by several state and federal environmental agencies; concern for the devastation of Clark County’s clean water, air, natural resource lands, and quality of life; misuse of taxpayer funds; and reminding Council of the survey from 2018 showing the FRDU to be overwhelmingly unpopular with residents. One resident asked a very cogent question to the Chair, who had recently expressed it was his mission to preserve Clark County farmland: How is applying a heavy industrial overlay over farmland and forestland not in direct contradiction of that preservationist goal? Concerningly, hardly any of the issues shared by residents in testimony were addressed during the following Council discussion.

During discussion, the Chair claimed multiple times that information and issues raised from the public were akin to “propaganda.” The Chair shared the building industry’s desires to scrap the current RFP and expand the scope of work to include “lands for jobs” analysis. Notably, the building industry had made no comment on the matter, meaning the Chair received this information outside of the public forums and meetings where the issue had been discussed. In addition, despite his previous claims that were denied by the chair of the Columbia River Economic Development Council (CREDC), of a positive cost benefit analysis having been done on the railroad, the Chair now stated that there was no way of developing a financial assessment of the FRDU. He then proposed terminating the current RFP process and creating a new RFP that included the original language but added a provision about “land for jobs”. 

One council member proposed inviting the Chair and Vice Chair of the Railroad Advisory Board (RRAB) for a work session discussion the next day. Other council members expressed concern with the process and mentioned the need to keep in mind legislative constraints. However, the majority of the Council agreed with the Chair’s direction. The Council set a work session for the 26th to discuss the “the lands for jobs” language and to speak with the RRAB chairs. The County did not provide any written public notice or public documents in advance of the June 26th session.

Notably, before parting, the Chair stated to a staff member, “I don’t intend to open up your model of VLBM, which was controversial in the many months we addressed it”.

What is the VBLM?

Per the Clark County website, “The Vacant Buildable Lands Model (VBLM) is a planning tool developed to analyze residential, commercial, and industrial lands within urban growth areas (UGAs). The model serves as a tool for evaluating urban area alternatives during Growth Management Act (GMA) plan updates and for monitoring growth patterns during interim periods.” On February 20th, 2024, Clark County Community Planning released the county’s VBLM capacity report. Most importantly, “this potential capacity is used to determine the amount of urban land needed to accommodate projected population and job growth for the next 20 years during comprehensive plan updates. The county is required to complete the comprehensive plan update by December 31st, 2025.” So, the VBLM is integral to the comprehensive plan update that is already underway, in which the cities within the county have already been allocated specific numbers regarding population and jobs. 

Despite this, the following day’s work session began with the Chair stating, “I thought we were just going to talk about the language to add with the scope of work for the next RFP to include the buildable lands model.” Staff reminded Council that the VBLM is based on employment land within the UGA, so opening the VBLM would not apply to the areas that the FRDU legislation targets, which are rural and resource lands. Staff also asked, “How does adding a land for jobs component to the FRDU implementation differ from the May 21, 2024 request from CREDC (Columbia River Economic Development Council) for [a] $50,000 matching grant to hire an economic development consultant to review potential industrial sites in the county, including sites located along the PVJR [sic] railroad (i.e. lands for jobs)?” Staff expressed that it would be appropriate to know whether the county gets that grant before moving forward with RFP, because it is the same scope of work.

Unexpected news from the Railroad Advisory Board (RRAB) 

Then, the RRAB Chair and Vice Chair made their appearance, sharing news that had not previously been in the public discourse regarding the current FRDU overlay consisting mostly of the Lagler/Ackerman property in Brush Prairie. The Vice Chair expressed that without the Lagler property, and considering the small parcels leftover (many of which have homes on them), the current FRDU overlay will not provide an opportunity for industrial development. Another notable statement was that the RRAB Chair expressed concern Eric Temple/Portland Vancouver Junction Railroad (PVJR) would attempt to gain the property through eminent domain, but they did not agree with that option. The RRAB Chair and Vice Chair concluded that there are “good-sized parcels” out there for the FRDU, but those parcels are mostly farmland.

What is next for the FRDU consultant, and how much more will it cost?

The modified RFP draft has now been included in the agenda for the Clark County Council Time at 1pm on Wednesday, July 10th. Because this is an agenda item, there will be an opportunity for written public comment and public testimony. You can read the full draft here:

Notably, staff has added a note to the RFP that Council must decide whether to include the provision “not to exceed $100,000”. Staff’s inclusion of this provision is a firm recognition that the new language has expanded the scope of work to such a degree that some unknown additional amount of money may be required to pay for this new RFP. Thus, the Council must decide to side with the building industry’s request to “check” previously completed work approved by Council, or with the county’s residents who have shown loud and clear they do not want their government to pursue these actions, much less pay for them. Let’s make them respond to residents—not the development industry.

Make your voice heard!

You can make your voice heard. View the Clark County Council agenda and how to submit comment or testify here:

UPDATE AS OF JULY 10TH, 2024: The majority of the Clark County Council VOTED DOWN the RFP for an FRDU consultant, meaning that FRDU implementation is not moving forward at this time. This is great news for now!

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