Cowlitz County commissioners reject land use change for subdivision in Woodland Bottoms

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A 200-acre change in land use designation in the Woodland Bottoms south of the city has been denied after the chief concern centered around the potential residential project’s impacts.

During its Sept. 20 meeting, the Cowlitz County Board of County Commissioners voted 3-0 to approve the county planning commission’s recommendation to deny the change. The move would have changed the comprehensive plan designation of the property in the proposal from rural “smallholding” to suburban, allowing for a greater density of housing lots.

The area in question is about 203 acres across nine parcels with four property owners, George Winn, senior planner for Cowlitz County, said at the meeting. The current smallholding designation requires minimum lot sizes of five acres, whereas the suburban designation allows for lots as small as 15,000 square feet.

At that minimum size, the area could potentially be developed into 588 lots, Winn said. He said the lot number would likely have been smaller given the geography of the land’s impact on what was actually buildable. As of the meeting, the applicants — Aho Construction and AKS Engineering and Forestry — featured a 245-lot subdivision.

The area is generally bounded by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad to the west, Pekin Road to the northeast and Whalen Road to the northwest. The area is about one-fifth of a mile from Woodland city limits to the area’s north.

The properties are currently used as pasture land, Winn said, featuring one home.

The applicants first proposed the change to county staff in February 2020, Winn said. The county planning commission held several workshops earlier this year, voting to deny the change in May. In July, the applicants appealed the decision to the board of commissioners.

During the process, members of the public raised a number of concerns about the potential development, including traffic, schools and environmental impacts.

Commissioner Arne Mortensen said the change before the board was akin to a “contest” over which property owners would get their way — the applicants or those affected by the potential change. 

“We have a landowner, and what that landowner does with that piece of property will impact other properties, regardless of whatever these (comprehensive plan) criteria are,” Mortensen said.

Both Mortensen and commissioner John Jabusch expressed concern over any development in the area affecting the already congested Interstate 5 Exit 21 to the north of the properties.

“Oftentimes (at) that exit, the traffic’s backed clear up to the highway,” Jabusch said.



Maren Calvert, the attorney for the applicants, said if approved, the project would showcase the reality that development will occur in the area.

“There’s pressure for growth to occur in the Woodland Bottoms. That’s kind of a given. The questions become how do we do that,” Calvert said.

She said considering the impacts to adjacent properties is prohibitive and will keep any development from happening.

“The question really needs to be whether that pressure is appropriate, is it mitigated, and what kind of policy decisions does the commission have to make given the lack of housing in the county in general? Where do we want that housing to go because it needs to go somewhere,” Calvert said.

She acknowledged the concerns over Exit 21 are valid, but said the applicants were only required to address impacts within the area subject to the potential change.

Speaking as a private citizen, Cowlitz County Planning Commission Chair Mark Smith said houses that cost between $500,000 and $1 million would not solve the county’s housing problem. Smith believes the county has an employment problem, saying it is “rapidly becoming a bedroom community.” That exacerbated infrastructure issues given the number of residents who commute, he said.

Woodland Community Development Director Travis Goddard mentioned the Woodland City Council voted to approve the expansion of its urban growth area to include the Woodland Bottoms the night before the meeting. It included the property in question for the designation change. He said if the county agreed with the growth area expansion, “this would be something we would like to take off your plate,” regarding the potential development.

Goddard noted the city is running out of residential land and the proposed development could be served by city utilities. If the city were to eventually annex the area, the project would pay into impact fees for development which would help Woodland financially.

“We are not necessarily against the idea that this property is going to develop in the future,” Goddard said. 

If the project moved forward with the county, it wouldn’t benefit from the type of growth management planning the city would incorporate into any development.

Given the proximity to Woodland city limits, Jabusch said placing a decision at the county level that would lead to suburban development isn’t prudent.

“To me, if something is going to move forward out there, we’re the wrong body to move it forward,” Jabusch said.

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