The Washougal City Council voted 5-3 last week to re-zone a 16-acre greenspace owned by the Washougal School District (WSD).
City staff said the re-zoning, which changed the property from a public-institutional designation back to its pre-2002 single-family residential zoning, was required under the city’s comprehensive plan.
But some community members fear the re-zoning will pave the way for the patch of partially forested open space south of Kerr Park to be turned into a housing development.
Washougal Mayor Molly Coston said the vote doesn’t mean city leaders are not open to having a conversation about the property’s future.
“This (vote) does not preclude further conversation on this topic,” Coston said. “As a matter of fact, I think it’s probably going to make it more cogent and more essential to really deliberate on how we want to work together to move forward on this. We all live here. We want it to be the best community (it can be). Certainly, we’ll continue to have conversations about this piece of property.”
At the Nov. 12 public hearing, many city councilors agreed that re-zoning the property didn’t end the conversation about its use as greenspace.
Before approving the Washougal Planning Commission’s recommendation to re-zone the property, most of the council members expressed their desire for the city to purchase the property from the school district.
Some even opposed the re-zoning, with councilors Ray Kutch, Julie Russell and Michelle Wagner all voting “nay” to the re-zoning request.
The Planning Commission voted 4-2 on Oct. 8 to recommend a change to the parcel’s zone designation and sent the issue to Council for approval.
A group of concerned Washougal citizens tried to appeal to the Council, asking city leaders to help preserve the land as public, open space.
“Ultimately, this is not the end, I believe,” Councilwoman Alex Yost said. “This is, unfortunately, a very sensitive subject, but it’s also part of an annual review, part of a procedure. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to go out there with bulldozers tomorrow. It doesn’t mean we’re going to be in the school district’s ear saying, ‘Yeah, you should develop that.’ My understanding is that this property specifically is on our long-term parks plan, so I would assume that when the school district decides to sell it, it would be in the city’s interest to pursue purchasing it so we can expand the park.”
The concerned residents have asked school district leaders to provide the city with an opportunity to buy the parcel if and when it becomes available.
In October, Washougal resident April Engle launched an online petition requesting community support to “save WSD lands/Kerr Park from re-zoning and development.” As of Friday, Nov. 15, the petition had collected 829 signatures.
The Columbia Land Trust, a Vancouver-based land conservation agency, has expressed an interest in helping the city with the purchase of the parcel if it becomes available.
Decision conflicts council members
Council members said they weren’t allowed to openly discuss their thoughts and opinions about the future of the parcel before the Nov. 12 council meeting due to the quasi-judicial nature of the hearing. During their pre-vote comment period on Nov. 12, many councilors voiced their desire to keep the property green, but warned greenspace supporters in attendance that voting against the proposed re-zone would be difficult.
“We have a very, very specific charge with this hearing,” Yost said. “Yes, there are implications. However, we have to do the work that’s in front of us here right now, (which) is so painfully specific. I feel like I’m being pulled in both directions because I care so much about raising my daughter in a place with leaders who care about and protect our greenspace. That’s fundamentally important to me and also a reason why I moved here. I find a lot of inner turmoil and conflict with that, but at the same time, I want to do my job here.”
Councilman Ernie Suggs said that the issue presented a “quandary.”
“I would like to see us, as a city, buy this property, but we don’t have the funds for it,” Suggs said. “If we bought it today, it would be a lot cheaper than if we were to buy it two or three years from now because of the re-zoning. We are locked into certain procedures that we need to do, and there’s some things that we want to do with our hearts that may not fit into that. I wish there was an easy question for the city to (answer), ‘Hey, let’s do this.'”
Russell said she hopes the city and school district can work together to come to an arrangement to preserve the land.
“This is a really hard decision,” Russell said. “The taxpayers of the Washougal School District purchased this property, and the school district has to make the best use of the property for its facilities and educational level. We would love to have unlimited funds for parks and open space. Unfortunately, we don’t have unlimited money to do this. I’m torn about how I feel about this.”
Councilman Paul Greenlee said he and his colleagues were “stuck in a procedural situation.”
“The procedure here is a question of comprehensive plan and zoning. It doesn’t bring in bulldozers. It doesn’t create a project. That happens in separate processes,” he said. “In my way of thinking, what this all does is put the piece of property into play in a way that the community can come together to find a way to acquire it and turn it into a park.”
In 2001, WSD purchased the 30-acre Kerr Property for $1.85 million. The district had intended to use the property for a new school, but those plans were scuttled when WSD decided to remodel Jemtegaard Middle School and build Columbia River Gorge Elementary School on Evergreen Way in 2017.
Almost half of the property was developed for various school district uses, but the woods have been virtually untouched. In February, WSD asked city officials to re-zone the parcel, which had already been re-zoned from single-family residential to public-institutional in 2002.
“I understand the ideas around shrinking greenspace and the opposition and the feel of this property being a part of Kerr Park, but it is not. It is publicly owned by the school district,” said Mitch Kneipp, the city’s community development director. “With (the school district) surplussing the property, the fundamental reason to change (the zoning) is the property will no longer be publicly owned. Under our comprehensive plan and that criteria, (the public-institutional) designations are for publicly owned property. This one will not be that.”
Kneipp added that, if the property sold to a private owner with the public-institutional zoning the city would need to re-zone the parcel to be consistent with Washougal’s comprehensive plan.
That is why the property switched from single-family residential in 2002, he said.
“We changed it so our comprehensive plan would be consistent,” Kneipp said. “If it sold, we would have to change (the zoning), which is exactly what we’re looking at doing now.”
The property would have much more monetary value with a residential designation, said Joe Steinbrenner, WSD’s director of facilities and operations.
“The district has a responsibility to manage its assets. That’s what this is really about,” Steinbrenner said. “In regard to the Kerr property, that means restoring it to (single-family residential), same as when the district purchased the site. The Kerr property is not for sale. If the school board does decide in the future to sell it, (that would be conducted) through a public process.”
That explanation didn’t satisfy the nine local residents who spoke during the public hearing.
“I think it is a very unique piece of property within the city limits. It is probably the only, what I would consider to be, forested piece of property,” said Washougal resident Doug Engle. “These kinds of properties have incredible value to their communities. You as council members have a responsibility not only to the economic development of our community but also (for) the well-being and quality of life that we all share. I would like to request that you look into every opportunity that there is to maintain the property as private property, maintain it as a park and extend the 13 acres that currently exist as a park by another 16 acres and make it one of the most unique park properties in the city of Washougal.”
State agency has environmental concerns related to re-zoning
The proposed re-zoning also invited some environmental concerns.
On Oct. 25, Kneipp received an email from Chuck Stambaugh-Bowey of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), which questioned how the parcel’s riparian buffer would be impacted by potential development.
Campen Creek, which enters the property on the northeast corner and exits on the southeast corner, is a tributary of Gibbons Creek, which confluences with the Columbia River on the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
“Extensive restoration activities are occurring on the refuge in the next few years that will reestablish habitat and passage for fish up Campen Creek. These species include coho salmon, steelhead and two species of lamprey,” Stambaugh-Bowey stated in the email.
He added that WDFW expected chum salmon to start using Campen Creek again in the coming years.
“Additionally, coho salmon spawn in Campen Creek along the eastern boundary of the property,” he stated. “It is important that we work to maintain riparian function of Campen Creek through this parcel. The riparian critical area associated with Campen Creek is already impaired from development in the immediate area.”
The WDFW recommended the city council keep the property zoned public-institutional.
“Considering the importance of fully functioning riparian values, keeping this parcel in a park setting (George Schmid Memorial Park) is more conducive to maintaining riparian function,” Stambaugh-Bowey stated in the email.
WDFW also suggested that land-use decisions should take the “environmental importance” of the area into account.
“Because (the) Campen Creek riparian critical area is already impaired, we recommend no buffer averaging or siting of stormwater structures within the riparian buffer,” Stambaugh-Bowey stated.
Kneipp said the WDFW’s concerns, while valid, did not apply to the proposed re-zoning.
“These are exactly the kind of comments that we would get on a subdivision application, and they make sense for that application. They make no sense for an annual review and a re-zone,” Kneipp said. “It was somewhat frustrating from a staff perspective to get this response. Their concern is development to the watershed and effects to Steigerwald. I agree (that) those can be real things, but not through changing the comprehensive plan map or the zoning map. Those aren’t impacts that we’re going to see with this action. Those are impacts that will be done at the time of a development application, a project application.”