How Clark County plans its land use in the next few decades requires a benchmark for how many people are expected to live in the area. It’s the first of a number of steps toward a state-mandated renewal of a planning document that steers where development happens within county borders.
The Clark County Council hosted a public hearing during its April 18 meeting on the adoption of a population projection for the 2025 update of the county’s Comprehensive Growth Management Plan. It is part of the overall process that began this year to provide a plan update covering projected changes in land use during a 20-year period.
The update is a part of the state’s Growth Management Act. The county is required to use a population projection based on data from the state’s Office of Financial Management (OFM) to inform its own accepted projection. That office supplies three numbers to provide a range so the county can pick its own projected annual rate.
OFM’s population projections in Clark County for 2045 range from about 576,000 people to roughly 792,000. The medium number provided by the office is about 698,000.
Clark County’s population has historically grown every year going back to 2000, from a low of .37% in 2010 to a high of 3.44% in 2002. The OFM-provided growth rates from 2025 to 2045 have average annual increases of .6% on the low end, 1.51% on the high end, and 1.26% for the medium.
The office’s medium projections have historically been close to where the county has ended up. Paul Newman, a Geographic Information Systems analyst for the county, noted the medium projection made in 2002 was within 7,000 people of the actual census data for 2020, which was about a percentage point of difference.
The projections anticipate a decrease in the growth rate of the county. One of the reasons for the decrease is because the base population is expected to continually increase. The actual number of people added per year is expected to stay more or less the same, but as a percentage of population, that number is less.
“You may be adding 20,000 (population) on an annual basis, but you’re adding that number to your base, so your percentage is going to be much, much smaller,” county community planning director Oliver Orjiako said.
Other factors include an increased death rate due to the age of postwar Baby Boomers. The projected “natural” increase, or births minus deaths in the county, is expected to approach zero after 2045, based on OFM data. Net migration into the county is expected to remain the major driver of population increase in the projection.
Cities support lower projection than developers
Representatives of cities in Clark County are unanimous in their support of going with the medium projected growth as the county’s population projection. Representatives from each, including Woodland which is largely in neighboring Cowlitz County, spoke at the meeting to push for that 1.26% annual rate to be adopted.
The leader of the county’s biggest city, Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle, said the medium forecast would equate to adding another Vancouver to the county in population. She noted that based on the medium projection, the county would need about 107,000 more housing units by 2045.
“We will need to make room for more housing units in the next 20 years than we did in the last 30 years,” McEnerny-Ogle said.
North Clark County cities were also in support of the medium rate’s adoption.
“I think having representation of all of the cities shows you how important this is to us,” Ridgefield Mayor Jennifer Lindsay said.
From the perspective of a city that has been the fastest-growing one in the state multiple times in the past decade, Lindsay said the start of residential construction is already slowing when compared to commercial and industrial development.
“The medium growth rate makes sense for what we’re actually seeing and expecting,” Lindsay said.
Lindsay said Ridgefield has exceeded residential density targets for new housing made in 2016. She said a higher population projection would increase pressure on the cities’ ability to provide needed infrastructure.
Although the cities are in support of the medium growth rate, development interests pushed for one above that.
Noelle Lovern, government affairs director for the Building Industry Association of Clark County, asked the council to consider a rate no less than 1.4%. She said it seemed OFM didn’t account for local variables, noting past annual growth rate predictions were lower than what happened.
“Clark County, on its current trajectory, is facing some major challenges. Underestimating the 20-year population forecast will exacerbate many of them,” Lovern said.
Eric Golemo, owner of SGA Engineering, said he was “a little shocked” when he saw the growth rates being proposed during a prior work session.
“I was expecting 1.7%,” Golemo said.
Between 2010 and 2020, that was the average annual growth rate the county saw, based on Census data.
Golemo said underestimates on population growth lead to housing availability and affordability shortages.
Justin Wood, who represented the Clark County Association of Realtors, said by OFM’s own numbers, “Clark County was the fastest-growing county in Washington state” from 2020 to 2022.
“If this county continues to underestimate growth, there have and will continue to be consequences, including a diminished capacity for both jobs and housing for a burgeoning population,” Wood said.
Following testimony, Clark County Council Chair Karen Bowerman moved to approve a projected annual population growth rate between the medium and high levels from OFM.
“I think the thing that bothers me the most is that we have been, apparently, under forecasting,” Bowerman said. “That has fed our worse-than-average housing shortage, as well as the cost of housing.”
Newman reiterated the nature of population increase, which doesn’t equate to an increase or even stable growth rate. Census data showed the population of Clark County grew by about 3.8% annually between 1990 to 2000. It then dropped to the 1.7% figure from 2010 to 2020.
The data showed the nominal population per Census data decreased in that timeframe, with about 107,000 more people between 1990 and 2000, to about 78,000 between 2010 and 2020.
Councilor Sue Marshall expressed concerns about the county deviating from what the cities have already planned for with the medium growth rate.
“Land alone does not create affordable housing, but it’s often brought up,” Marshall said.
She said that approach hasn’t panned out in practice.
“The market has not met the needs of the community in terms of housing,” Marshall said.
She mentioned the ongoing work at 179th Street, land within the expanded Vancouver urban growth area but within the county’s unincorporated jurisdiction, as an example of issues that arise from overeager development that could result from a higher population projection. That corridor is currently subject to a traffic improvement plan with cost estimates in the tens of millions.
“We haven’t planned for the infrastructure, but we’ve expanded on a wing and a prayer, fingers crossed, that the money would come through,” Marshall said.
Councilor Glen Yung said “very little to no specifics” on migration into Clark County specifically factored into OFM’s projections.
“I think it’s important for us to understand that these projections were given to us using averages, and not area-specific, local-specific numbers,” Yung said.
He also doesn’t believe the growth will taper off, given what he said is the “inviting environment” Clark County has. He mentioned the lack of a state income tax as one of the factors.
Alongside Yung, councilor Gary Medvigy said he wasn’t prepared to support the high end number given the information available.
“We’re not talking about slowing growth or stopping growth,” Medvigy said. “We’re just trying to keep our infrastructure up and plan for it.”
Though a decision was initially set for the meeting, councilors voted to direct county staff to contact OFM so they can attend an upcoming meeting with a presentation prior to a May 2 continuation of the hearing on the public participation plan.
Yung, with concurrence from the other councilors, pushed to get direct input from the office before making a decision.
If OFM staff is not available before May 2, the hearing continuation will be moved to a later date.