Across the Columbia, a game of catch-up

by Rebecca Clarren

Pam Vanderheiden listens to a lot of radio - she certainly has the time. Every day, she joins the throngs of people who commute from Vancouver, Wash., across the Columbia River into Portland, Ore. Every day, the traffic is bad.

"Getting home is a nightmare," says Vanderheiden. "It takes 45 minutes to go 13 miles."

Still, many people say the commute is a worthwhile sacrifice for the chance to own a home, especially one in a classic, sprawling suburban neighborhood. Over the last decade, as Portland's growing population has filled up inside city limits, single-family homes with big yards have become expensive. Vancouver, just across the border and regulation-free until recently, has been a more affordable option for people with families. In Portland, the average house sold in September 2002 was $217,100; the average house in Vancouver went for $186,100.

Some say that's why, between 1990 and 2000, Vancouver's Clark County population grew three times faster than Portland's Multnomah County. "We've been functioning as a release valve for the Portland side of the river," says Richard Carson, a former Oregon planner who now works for Vancouver's planning department. "People who don't like high-density housing are moving here."

But while Vancouver has seen the growth, it has reaped few of the benefits. Over a third of Vancouver residents work in Portland, so they pay Oregon income tax. Clark County residents are paying for the expensive infrastructure that accompanies new development without the balance of economic growth.

"Clark County is getting its pockets picked," says Don Stewart, the American Farmland Trust's Pacific Northwest director. Meanwhile, growth in the county has gobbled up farm and forestland, and the remaining open space around Vancouver is fragmented.

In 1990, Washington passed the Growth Management Act, its version of Oregon's land-use planning regulation. Although the act didn't create a state agency and allows much more control at the local level, in most other ways it mirrors Oregon's law: It requires fast-growing counties to protect open space, foster economic growth and create boundaries around cities to contain sprawl.

In Vancouver, the city is working on an economic development strategy to attract business and retain its workforce.

Washington planners say the new system is better late than never. "Not much open space was protected before the Growth Management Act was passed, and now local governments are scrambling to plan," says Ron Shultz, Gov. Gary Locke's natural resource policy advisor. "We hear criticism from all sides, but I actually think it's better than if we didn't have anything. We'll see."

© High Country News