Top 10 Camas-Washougal news stories of 2022

From COVID-19 mandate rebellions and political upheavals to riverboats and wildfires, we count down the issues that captured our readers’ attention in ’22

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Top 10 stories of 2022
Clockwise from upper right: The American Empress riverboat docks at Parker’s Landing Marina in Washougal for the first time June 8, 2022. (Post-Record files); YBA Architects’ new renderings of the Hyas Point waterfront development project show the first phase of construction, which will include four mixed-use buildings and several streets and get under way in 2023. (Contributed graphic courtesy of the Port of Camas-Washougal); Vehicles carrying Camas School District students and staff line up at the school district’s COVID-testing site at Doc Harris Stadium Jan. 18, 2022. (Contributed photo courtesy of the Camas School District); Camas Police Chief Mitch Lackey (right) and the city’s finance director, Cathy Huber Nickerson, attend the 2022 Camas State of the Community on Sept. 15, 2022. (Post-Record files); and Democratic candidate for Washington's 3rd Congressional District Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, right, looks skyward while Republican candidate Joe Kent gives his closing remarks on Saturday during a debate at the Vancouver Community Library. (Contributed photo by Taylor Balkom, courtesy of The Columbian files)

As we prepare to welcome 2023, it’s time to remember some of the top news events that helped shape life in the Camas-Washougal area this year. Following are the top 10 news headlines and issues that captured Post-Record readers’ attention in 2022:

10. Reopenings and the return of community events

As people began to move past the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, several Camas-Washougal facilities reopened — some for the first time in over two years — and beloved events returned to the area to entertain residents and visitors.

June was a big month for a “return to normal,” with the reopening of the Camas Public Library’s Second Story Gallery, which had been closed since March 2020, and the return of the popular, two-day Camas Days festival, which brought thousands of visitors to the streets of historic downtown Camas for parades, bathtub races, bouncy houses, live music and the crowning of the Camas Days Senior Royal Court.

Some long-awaited Camas-Washougal reopenings, however, had nothing to do with the pandemic. In May, the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge reopened to the public after a nearly two-year closure for environmental restoration work; and, in October, the Camas School District celebrated the reopening of its historic Joyce Garver Theater following another lengthy remodeling and restoration project funded by CSD voters in the district’s 2016 construction bond.

9. North Shore comes into view

Camas’ North Shore, a mostly undeveloped 990-acre area north of Camas’ Lacamas Lake, came into sharper focus in 2022, after city of Camas officials in February gave the public a first look at land-use concepts that included publicly owned open spaces near Lacamas Lake, and a “central plaza” in the middle of North Shore surrounded by privately owned residential, mixed-use, commercial and business parks.

In August, the city held a public open house to show design concepts for the North Shore that could add more than 2,900 residential units and 1,400 new jobs to Camas.

Finally, in November, following a series of public hearings, the Camas City Council OK’d the second phase of the North Shore Subarea Plan. Camas city officials, including members of the Camas Planning Commission, are expected to tackle new zoning and design rules for the North Shore in 2023.

8. Wildfire forces mass evacuations

On Oct. 16, following a day of dry, windy conditions, a wildfire burning on roughly 150 acres in the Larch Mountain area northeast of Camas-Washougal suddenly exploded in size, forcing thousands of local residents in the “go now” evacuation zone to pack their belongings, pets and livestock and seek shelter elsewhere – including to an evacuation shelter inside the Camas Church of the Nazarene. Thankfully, not long after fire officials issued the evacuation orders, weather conditions improved, and cooler temperatures combined with higher relative humidity allowed firefighters to get a handle on the blaze and keep the fire from expanding into nearby residential areas.

7. Officials announce surprise resignations, retirements

Several elected officials and prominent public leaders chose 2022 to announced their surprise resignations and impending retirements.

The first to announce their departure in 2022, was then Camas-Washougal Fire Chief Nick Swinhart, who resigned unexpectedly in March. Camas Police Chief Mitch Lackey was next, announcing in April that he planned to retire in early 2023, but would be on hand to help city leaders find and onboard the next Camas police chief.

Three months later, in July, Camas City Council member Shannon Roberts unexpectedly stepped down from the Ward 1, Position 1 Council seat she’d won in November 2019. The surprise resignations continued in September, when newly elected Washougal Mayor Rochelle Ramos — who won her four-year seat in 2021, after a tumultuous election season that exposed Ramos’ opponent’s history of violence toward women — announced she was resigning as Washougal’s mayor and taking a new job outside Washington state.

More resignations were on the way in December, when the Camas City Council’s longest-serving Council member, Greg Anderson, announced his unexpected resignation just one year before the end of his most current term, and Camas School Board member Doug Quinn resigned from his elected position after being named the next Camas city administrator.

6. Political upheaval in WA’s 3rd Congressional District

One of the country’s most surprising political upheavals during the 2022 midterm elections happened right here in our neck of the woods when Democratic congressional candidate Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, a fifth-generation Washingtonian who lives in Skamania County and co-owns a Portland automotive repair shop, flipped Washington’s 3rd Congressional District blue, beating her Republican challenger, Joe Kent — a former Green Beret backed by former President Donald Trump who espoused far-right political views — and wresting control of the 3rd District from the Republicans for the first time in a decade.

5. Camas sets restrictions on drug rehabs

Caving to pressure from a group of Camas residents who had fought the opening of a private drug treatment and rehabilitation center in Camas’ Prune Hill neighborhood throughout 2021, Camas city officials agreed to set limitations on drug rehabilitation centers and sober living homes in 2022.

A citizen group known as the Dorothy Fox Safety Alliance (DFSA), represented by attorney Brian Lewallen – the husband of Camas City Councilwoman Leslie Lewallen — filed an appeal in Clark County Superior Court in June 2021 in a bid to stop the owners of Discover Recovery from opening a 15-bed, inpatient recovery center on a 2.39-acre property known as Fairgate Estate that has been used as a bed and breakfast, wedding venue and an assisted living center, claiming the private facility would endanger children at the nearby Dorothy Fox Elementary School, harm the neighborhood and lower property values.

In February, a Clark County Superior Court judge ruled against the Camas citizens’ group in the DFSA’s land-use lawsuit against the city of Camas, paving the way for Discover Recover to operate in Camas’ Prune Hill neighborhood.

In January, one month before the Superior Court ruling greenlighting the drug rehab, the Camas Planning Commission sent a proposal to the Camas City Council that would have prohibited drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers — as well as transitional “sober living” homes for people in recovery — from operating in the city’s single-family, residential, multi-family residential, mixed-use, neighborhood commercial and downtown commercial areas and banned such facilities from operating within 1,000 feet of public and private schools, public parks, libraries, and similar drug treatment facilities.

Four months later, in April, Camas City Council members sent the proposal back to the Planning Commission after discovering the proposed city code amendments could violate state and federal laws, including the U.S. Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discriminatory housing practices involving people with disabilities, including individuals recovering from drug or alcohol addiction.

The Camas Planning Commission held a second public hearing on the proposed slate of annual code amendments on April 19. To avoid legal conflicts, city staff recommended that the Commission uncouple sober living homes from the proposed definition of a residential treatment facility.

In May, the Camas City Council expressed unanimous support for the planning commission’s proposed code amendments to limit the siting of future residential drug and alcohol treatment facilities within city limits.

The city’s new rules restrict drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers from operating in most of the city’s zones and make Camas one of just two Washington cities to create a 1,000-foot “buffer zone” between residential treatment facilities and public facilities like schools, parks and libraries.

4. School officials respond to reports of racist slurs, bullying

School leaders in Camas and Washougal reacted to reports of racist slurs and bullying inside local schools and at various home games between Camas student-athletes and visiting teams.

In January, the Camas School District announced that an independent investigation had found Camas students had likely directed “inappropriate language” toward students of color on the visiting Benson High School junior varsity girls basketball team in December 2021.

The Camas School Board said in January that the investigation “reinforce(d) the need to emphasize sportsmanship, decorum and respect for all within our schools” and added that “racism, bullying and harassment of any kind or scope are not tolerated in our schools.”

Three months later, in April 2022, the district again found itself enmeshed in accusations that Camas students had directed racist slurs toward members of a visiting athletic team. In this case, members of the Vancouver-based Skyview High School’s junior varsity baseball team and their coach said members of Camas’ junior varsity baseball team had engaged in racist behavior directed toward a Skyview player of color.

Then-Camas Athletic Director Rory Oster and then-Camas High Principal Tom Morris later said a weeklong investigation was “not able to confirm all allegations,” but that Camas leaders “do know (Camas student-athletes) engaged in racist behavior” during the April 20 junior varsity baseball game against Skyview and that “their actions and the inaction of the athletes who witnessed these acts clearly illustrate that a problem exists in our team.”

In August, the Camas School District’s new superintendent, John Anzalone, said he wanted to have “a fresh set of eyes” on the district’s athletics programs, adding that the district wanted to make visiting student-athletes feel welcome in Camas.

“We are not going to crucify anybody, because these are kids, but we will still hold people accountable,” Anzalone told The Post-Record in August.

Two months later, in October, the Washougal School District announced it had concluded an internal investigation into allegations that Washougal students exhibited racist behavior — including wearing blackface — during a Washougal High School volleyball match that took place earlier in the year, but refused to reveal the investigation’s conclusions or if any students had been held accountable for the alleged incident.

Meanwhile, Washougal student representatives to the Washougal School Board have said the district is experiencing increased bullying and racial slurs.

“We’ve had a lot of divisions in our school this year,” Megan West, a Washougal High senior, told the school board in October. “A lot of people are yelling and shouting at (others). There have been frequent occurrences (of students) bringing others down and treating people as less than human lately, and bullying due to sexual orientation, race and other key parts of people’s identities. (Slurs have) been extremely prevalent in our school.”

3. Cities face critical facility needs, debate funding sources

City leaders in Camas and Washougal spent much of 2022, debating the best way to respond to increased demands on city services, tens of millions of dollars worth of critical infrastructure needs and staffing issues that were causing hardships for many city staffers.

In July, Camas city leaders discovered the city was facing nearly $35 million worth of needed upgrades and repairs to 17 of its publicly owned buildings, including $17 million in “observed deficiencies” that should be addressed in the next five years.

The news three months after the Camas City Council in April approved an amendment to the Camas-Washougal Fire Department’s capital facilities plan after a consultant’s report showed the fire department was facing an estimated $35 million worth of facilities needs, including the replacement of two failing fire stations — one in downtown Camas and another near downtown Washougal — within the next few years.

In April, following a two-week public hearing that included more than three hours’ worth of debate, public testimony and repeated clarifications from city staff, the Camas City Council voted 6-1 (Councilwoman Leslie Lewallen cast the sole “nay” vote) to formally approve the city’s 2022 Parks, Recreation and Open Space (PROS) Plan and its prioritized list of short- and long-range parks- and recreation-related capital facilities needs.

In August, the city of Camas kicked off its 2023-24 budget process, with around $73 million worth of projects meant to fill critical city needs and satisfy the community’s expectations concerning city services such as parks, trails, streets, safety, emergency response and community development. The Camas Council approved the budget, along with a new 2% utility tax, in December.

Meanwhile, officials in the city of Washougal, who have struggled to come up with a steady revenue stream to help pay for the staffing additions, facility replacements and equipment upgrades Camas city leaders have approved for the joint Camas-Washougal Fire Department, passed its $49 million 2023 budget, said they would use some of the city’s fund balance in the fire fund to help support the fire department’s equipment replacements in 2023, and would continue to work with Camas officials to come up with “a plan to address staffing needs and fire apparatus and station replacement.”

2. Washougal waterfront growing up

There was a lot of excitement on the Washougal waterfront near the Port of Camas-Washougal’s headquarters in 2022.

In March, community members learned that the largest overnight riverboat west of the Mississippi River, the American Empress, was set to begin docking once a week on the Washougal waterfront, beginning in the summer of 2022.

In June, the American Empress docked in Washougal for the first time. Local dignitaries met the arriving passengers — who were on a seven-day journey on the Columbia River that took them from Vancouver to Spokane, with a trip to Astoria in between. Shuttle buses transport the American Empress visitors to downtown Washougal and downtown Camas, where they are able to explore local points of interest, including the Pendleton Woolen Mills and Two Rivers Heritage Museum, shop in local stores and dine in local restaurants.

In August, the residential, mixed-use project slated to bring hundreds of living spaces, and more than 50,000 square feet of retail and restaurant space to the Washougal waterfront finally upgraded from the generic “Washougal waterfront development” to its real name, Hyas Point.

In December, developers gave Port of Camas-Washougal officials a “first look” at the Hyas Point buildings and said the development, which is expected to kick-off construction by the fall of 2023, will be “a lively, walkable place with community gathering and character spaces, commercial, retail, mixed-use, and residential uses,” with a design that will “honor the natural beauty and history of the site and the community, and support the creation of a local and regional identity for the cities of Washougal and Camas.”

1. COVID-19 mandates, surges and consequences

Though many people have put the COVID-19 pandemic in their rearview mirrors, the SARS-CoV-2 virus continued to dominate headlines and impact the lives of Camas-Washougal residents throughout much of 2022.

In January, as the extremely contagious omicron variant of COVID swept through the community, Camas school leaders said they were doing everything possible to maintain in-person learning and extracurricular activities. The district was still providing free COVID testing for its students and staff in January and went from testing 30 to 60 people a week before the 2021-22 winter holiday break to testing over 400 people the week after the new year holiday.

The high number of COVID-positive students and staff in January reflected a substantial increase in community transmissions. On Jan. 13, 2022, Clark County Public Health officials said the county’s COVID transmission rate had skyrocketed to 1,679 cases per 100,000 residents – six times higher than the 263-per-100,000 rate recorded the week before Christmas 2021. COVID hospitalizations also surged during the January omicron wave.

Several Camas-Washougal residents continued to protest public health mandates meant to stem the spread of COVID in early 2022. In February, anti-maskers disrupted a Washougal School Board meeting and refused to follow public health ordinances. A group of Washougal High students staged a walk-out in early February, protesting the school district’s continued adherence to state public health mandates that required school staff, visitors and students to wear masks to help prevent COVID infections.

Just a few weeks later, on March 11, governors in Washington, Oregon and California announced they were lifting their COVID mask mandates for most places – including schools – but would still require their use in health care facilities and on public transportation.

Local city councils resumed in-person meetings in March, after two years of holding remote meetings.

COVID surged again in July as well as in December, prompting Clark County public health officials to issue a recommendation on Dec. 9, that people consider wearing high-quality masks like N95 respirators in crowded indoor spaces.

“Communities across our state and around the U.S. are experiencing an unprecedented surge in viral respiratory illnesses, including respiratory syncytial virus, influenza and COVID-19,” Dr. Alan Melnick, Public Health director and Clark County health officer, and Dr. Steven Krager, Clark County deputy health officer, stated on Dec. 9. “… We recommend that everyone wear a high-quality, well-fitting mask when around others in indoor spaces to protect against both acquiring and spreading these infections.”

The county has recorded 974 COVID deaths since early 2020.

Some people who rebelled against public health mandates during the height of the pandemic were beginning to face consequences in 2022. In October, the Washington Medical Commission held a hearing to determine the fate of a Scott Miller, a physician assistant and the founder of Miller Family Pediatrics in Washougal, charged with pushing unfounded COVID remedies and verbally harassing doctors and nurses treating severely ill COVID patients. The Medical Commission announced in December that it had indefinitely suspended Miller’s medical license.