Group seeks to save Washougal greenspace

Nearly 800 people have signed online petition

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Washougal resident April Engle walks with her dogs through Kerr Park on Thursday, Oct. 24. Engle is leading an effort to preserve the 16 acres of greenspace directly south of the park from housing development.

April Engle brings up Kerr Park on Google Maps and sighs, clearly dismayed with what she’s seeing. She points to the 16-acre parcel of land directly south of the Washougal park.

“If this was added to Kerr Park, it would be the largest green space in this area, not counting the Gorge,” she said. “It makes me sadder when I look at this.”

After moving to Washougal from Portland, Engle quickly fell in love with the park, which is within walking distance from her house on 53rd Street. Because she works mostly from home, she likes to get out as much as she can to walk her two chihuahuas, de-stress and connect with nature.

That’s why she’s leading a group of Washougal citizens who are attempting to preserve the parcel, which is owned by the Washougal School District (WSD). The residents, who fear that WSD could sell the parcel to a housing developer after a recent zoning change, have requested that the city of Washougal be given an opportunity to buy the parcel if and when the school district decides to sell it.

“I feel like our identity as a community is in jeopardy if we keep building on every square inch,” Engle said. “We’re not Camas. We don’t want to be Camas. If this goes away, there’s nothing.”

Earlier this month, Engle launched an online petition requesting community support to “save WSD lands/Kerr Park from rezoning and development.” As of Monday, Oct. 28, the petition had collected 771 signatures.

“Removing these lands from public use and opening them for development will fundamentally and irrevocably alter the park, a loss that can and should be avoided,” the petition states. “We respectfully request that our publicly elected officials on the Washougal city council and school board find another solution to avoid breaking up and developing this acreage.”

School district in ‘listening mode

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 WSD uses, but the 16 acres of woods has been virtually untouched.

In February, WSD asked city officials to rezone the parcel.

“We declared it surplus because we no longer have a long-term plan for that acreage,” WSD superintendent Mary Templeton said. “It is my understanding that the property was residential before the school district purchased it. If we’re not going to use that property, it’s not properly zoned. We thought it would be reasonable to request that it be returned to its original zoning.”

On Oct. 8, in front of a large crowd, the city’s planning commission voted by a 4-2 count to change the parcel’s designation from institutional/public land to single-family residential.

“People were really demoralized,” Engle said. “So many people gave their stories (at the meeting), they voted, and boom. We didn’t even hear, “We’ll consider it and get back to you.’ That really took the wind out of our sails.”

Templeton told the Post-Record that the district has no plans to sell the property, and that “there is nothing going on with the city” in terms of discussions about a right-of-first-refusal arrangement.

“If and when (we consider selling the property) in the near future or far future, the school board would have to look at all of the available information as it relates to the asset to make a determination,” she said.

Templeton said the district is in “listening mode.”

“Everybody has a lot of different ideas, and we’re just listening, and I’m assuming the city is doing the same thing,” she said. “Right now we’re not taking any other action than to listen. If that changes, it will be identified as a public meeting item.”

Washougal city manager David Scott said that while “hypotheticals are always a bit difficult, generally speaking, the city is always open to exploring opportunities, possibilities and options with our partners.”

“If this property becomes available at some point in the future, I’m sure we would be open to exploring options,” he said. “Any decisions regarding property transactions are the council’s to make, and it would do so in a public meeting.”

The city has set a public hearing for Tuesday, Nov. 12, to discuss comprehensive plan amendments, capital facilities plan update items and zone changes, including the WSD property.

Conservation agency offers assistance

Engle said that several city council members have been supportive of her efforts and that the city would be interested in purchasing the property, “but resources are an issue.”

To that end, Engle reached out to Cherie Kearney of the Columbia Land Trust about the possibility of the Vancouver-based land conservation agency assisting the city with the purchase of the parcel if it became available.

Kearney told the Post-Record that she recently “shared with David Scott about the potential for partnership between the city of Washougal and Columbia Land Trust to acquire public park land in Washougal.”

“Columbia Land Trust would welcome the opportunity to work cooperatively with the city and the school district to transition the school-owned woods to a park,” said Kearney, a Washougal resident and former Washougal city council member. “The Columbia Land Trust can support cities like Washougal through helping with landowner negotiations, identifying and submitting grants and land transaction due diligence.”

Grant funding for the purchase could come from Clark County’s Legacy Lands program, the Washington and Wildlife Recreation Program, the city of Washougal and private donations, according to Kearney.

Engle and several other Washougal residents spoke at the WSD board of director’s Oct. 22 meeting, imploring district officials to consider an agreement with the city.

“I completely understand that the district has the right to sell it, but I’m excited … that there is somebody that has the funds to support keeping this green space,” said Kara Curtin, who lives on Gifford Place near the park. “There’s no perfect solution, but it feels that there’s some really good opportunities that could please a lot of people in this scenario. I feel really grateful that those opportunities (exist), and I really hope those are explored deeply.”

Engle briefly chatted with Templeton about the issue before the WSD board of directors’ Oct. 8 meeting, and was frustrated with the superintendent’s response.

“I’m not sure if she has any inclination (to help us),” Engle said. “Her vision seems to be (focused) entirely on the school district. That’s her job, and I get that. She’s good at what she does. But I feel that someone in her position should be concerned with more than just the schools. It should be about, ‘What’s good for this community?'”

Templeton said that while the district values its partnerships with community members and organizations, her first priority is making sure the schools succeed.

“We all live here together, and I appreciate advocacy, whether it’s in a situation like this or somebody advocating for their child or school program,” she said. “We have a responsibility to listen and be good partners. Our biggest responsibility is to make sure that every child is educated and prepared and ready to launch, and we take that responsibility seriously. We have to make sure that we’re leveraging every asset we have to make sure that student achievement is occuring.”

Engle said that her group isn’t assuaged by Templeton’s reassurance that the district has no plans to sell the property.

“That doesn’t do anything for us as a community,” Engle said. “There are no guarantees at all. We’re not going to know if the property suddenly goes on the market. With a right-of-first-refusal, there’s an agreement that the city would be notified if the property is going on the market. There wouldn’t be a backdoor deal with developers, who are drooling over this land.”

City has shortage of greenspace

According to figures provided by the city of Washougal, the city currently has 99.5 acres of parkland, 11.1 acres less than its recommended standard. By 2035, the shortage is projected to grow to 43 acres.

That’s why Engle feels that the parcel should be added to Kerr Park.

“It makes logical sense in any rational person’s mind to connect those two (areas),” she said. “Right now we have a deficit of green space based on our population and the city’s goals, and with the projected growth, the deficit increases.”

Engle said that even though the parcel is “not pristine wilderness by any stretch of the imagination” and is tangled with ivy and thorny blackberry bushes, it retains importance as an animal sanctuary and a place for people to “recharge.”

“We are surrounded by an increasingly urbanized environment,” she said. “I understand the urban growth boundary concept, but it doesn’t work if we don’t have parks. We need to be able to get away from that crush, and greenspaces are highly recommended.”

Engle is optimistic but realistic about the situation, which could take some time to resolve depending on if and when WSD decides to sell the land. In the meantime, she and her neighbors live with the knowledge that the decision to drastically alter one of their favorite places could come down at any moment.

“I don’t want to become jaded. I really don’t,” she said. “But it feels like there’s nothing that I can do. It will happen the way the bureaucracy wants it to happen, and that’s disempowering.”