OPINION: Smart growth management is key to fighting climate change

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category icon Editorials, Opinion

The legislative town hall with Republican lawmakers from the state’s 18th District held Saturday morning inside the Port of Camas-Washougal’s picturesque headquarters had a few moments of drama over vaccines and taxes but was mostly a well-oiled affair covering an impressively diverse range of topics.

Two of the topics constituents asked the lawmakers to address — fighting climate change on a state level by supporting low- and no-emissions vehicles while implementing tighter low-carbon fuel standards and addressing the state’s growth management constraints on local cities’ ability to halt growth at the local level — seemingly had little in common.

Look closer, however, and it’s easy to see how smart growth management and the race to stifle climate change are inextricably linked.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “the way we develop our communities has significant impacts on greenhouse gas emissions.” Building more urbanized areas that reuse existing infrastructure; putting homes, jobs, stores, parks and schools closer together to reduce vehicle trips; preserving green spaces to help capture carbon dioxide; and using energy efficient building techniques on new homes, schools and businesses all help reduce climate change.

Stemming climate change either means giving up our thirst for commuting from rural areas to work in urban areas and for traveling long distances since cars, trucks and planes that rely on fossil fuels to run make up the largest source of carbon emissions in the United States, or it means finding a more sustainable way of traveling and commuting — including using low-carbon fuels and purchasing no-emissions vehicles.

During the recent town hall, a constituent alluded to the fact that cities like Camas should be able to dictate their own growth management and halt state- and county-level plans that set growth and housing goals for Washington’s cities and towns.

If Camas community members don’t want the city to keep growing, they should have some control, she said. Republican Rep. Brandon Vick agreed, saying he believed the state’s Growth Management Act (GMA) adopted by state lawmakers in 1990 as a way of more sustainably managing Washington’s population growth while protecting natural resource lands and critical areas, was not meant to “regulate growth” but to “force urbanization.”

That sounds bad, but think about what it really means — the state and counties are trying to manage growth by clustering humans around urban centers, where they will, ideally, have the homes, schools, jobs and services they need without having to drive all day in greenhouse gas-producing vehicles to get there.

There is no way around it: Washington is growing and areas like Camas have to plan for this growth. If Camas says “no” to more growth, the new people flocking to Southwest Washington won’t just go away, they’ll likely move to areas like Ridgefield (the county’s fastest growing city) or La Center or Battle Ground and be even further away from where the majority of the jobs are located in Vancouver and Portland.

Rather than shut down growth completely, Camas leaders would be wise to follow the words of former City Councilwoman Deanna Rusch, who spoke eloquently on this topic at a Camas Youth Advisory Council candidate forum in October 2019: “There is a smart way to do this,” Rusch said, pointing to the council’s current efforts focusing on gathering citizen input about the city’s North Shore area, which is expected to shoulder the bulk of Camas’ growth over the next decade and be a mix of new residential, commercial and industrial lands. “We are looking at fire, police, all of the infrastructure that will be needed and we are reaching out to citizens right now to see what they want to see.”

Saying no to growth — something not currently allowed by state law — may help Camas residents who want to enjoy the city’s open spaces and parks and low-traffic roads, but that doesn’t benefit anyone else in the county or help stem climate change.

Taking a closer look at what that magic “35,000 by 2035” number really means (that the county’s second-largest city will accommodate about 11 percent of the nearly 90,000 people expected to move into Clark County by 2035) and planning in a wise and sustainable way — with more energy efficient buildings; more multifamily housing for workers who spend their days in Camas but likely cannot afford the city’s median home price of more than $500,000 and creating more opportunities for locals to ditch their cars in favor of walking, biking or taking public transportation — instead of simply shutting the city’s doors and saying, “no thanks” to new growth, will make the Camas of 2035, not to mention the Clark County of 2035, much more appealing for all of its residents, regardless of their income levels, and do much more to assist in the world’s fight against climate change.