VANCOUVER, Wash. — Ridgefield residents were asked what they think the city is most known and loved for in a 2015 survey. After the results came in, city officials created a word cloud using the answers, and right in the middle of the cloud, in the largest font, is one word: “small.”
The next question on the survey asked residents what they hope Ridgefield will be most well-known and loved for in 10 years, and, again, the word “small” appears large and toward the center of the cloud. This time, it’s placed diagonally from another word displayed equally large: “charm.”
In both questions, the top response from residents was “small-town charm.”
“Small-town charm may sounds cliche, but it’s who we are,” Ridgefield City Manager Steve Stuart said. “It’s what our residents love about this place.”
But how does a city keep that small-town charm while growing?
It’s a big question for Ridgefield, which is facing a projected 266 percent population increase by 2035. And it’s far from alone. Projections anticipate the population of Clark County’s other small cities to surge — by 49 percent in Camas and Washougal, 99 percent in Battle Ground and 146 percent in La Center.
“Small cities all over the county are embracing what makes them unique,” Stuart said. “(Residents) get we are growing, but they want the things they love about Ridgefield to still be here in 10 years. That’s our challenge. That’s the challenge for all the small cities.”
“All of us are facing balancing growth with maintaining a small-town feel,” said Washougal City Administrator David Scott. “That’s one of the highlights of living in Washougal. We’re mandated for growth by the state. We have to steer that growth in a way that works for our community while trying to maintain the character of the city and what makes it special.”
Still, officials in each city are confident they can accommodate the growth while keeping their cities’ respective charm.
“We’re not even big enough to be a big metropolis,” Scott said. “It can change and continue to have that same feel, maybe just with more vibrancy.”
City officials have been discussing growth recently because it was time to update their comprehensive plans, which guide land-use practices. On June 21, the county adopted its 20-year Comprehensive Growth Management Plan update, finishing three years of work and expanding some small cities’ growth boundaries. As the individual cities plan for growth, officials in each part of the county have different thoughts and plans for accommodating growth while maintaining all the amenities that make their cities desirable to live in.
Here’s where the cities stand heading into the next two decades.
To grow the city while keeping its charm, Stuart said, Ridgefield has created design standards so new buildings fit the character of the city. He also said it’s important for all the different parts of the city to be connected, which Ridgefield is working toward.
A $3.1 million grant through the Federal Lands Access Program will make pedestrian and bicyclist access to the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge easier and safer by adding a multi-use pathway connecting the end of the sidewalk on Main Avenue to the Carty Unit. Construction is expected to start in 2018 and finish by the end of that year. Once it’s in place, people will be able to park downtown in Ridgefield and walk to the refuge, which is adding a trail around Carty Lake to connect to the new pedestrian bridge.
The Port of Ridgefield’s Pioneer Street Railroad Overpass Project received its final piece of funding earlier this year, and construction on that is expected to wrap up by the end of 2018, as well. The overpass will be located above railroad tracks to connect Pioneer Street to the port’s property, making it easier to get from downtown to the waterfront area.
“We want you to be able to go on a bike ride anywhere in the city and feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, like you’re in the middle of this place all its own,” Stuart said. “We have every little bit of Americana you could ask for. It’s the Rockwellian image in your mind’s eye.”
More and more people are already seeing all Ridgefield has to offer. It’s the fastest-growing city in Clark County, and was named the fastest-growing city in the state last year by U.S. Census Bureau estimates. So far this year, the city has issued around 275 permits for new homes, Stuart said; the city is expected to issue more than 400 by the end of the year. Last year, Ridgefield issued 248 permits for new homes.
“We don’t control growth,” Stuart said. “We plan for and manage growth.”
To plan and manage growth, Stuart said, city staff dive deeper into the growth plan.
“Population growth is dry,” he said. “It’s colors on a map. It’s an academic exercise done with a very broad brush.”
Stuart said city officials look at the different parts of Ridgefield and plan around what the land is suited for. Certain areas of the city are meant to allow residents to connect with nature — which Stuart said is a big draw for Ridgefield thanks to the refuge. Other parts, like the Interstate 5 junction, will be for jobs. City planners aren’t just looking out for people, but are planning for jobs, Stuart said.
“The last frontier for regional job development is the Discovery Corridor,” Stuart said. “We are what’s next. There’s a wide variety of opportunity for people and businesses.”
To make sure Washougal keeps a small-town feel, Scott said connectivity is crucial.
“More than the development itself, we want an engaged community,” he said, adding that it’s important to get residents downtown through community events.
Scott said Reflection Plaza in downtown is one of the city centers vital to bringing the community together. Another opened as the Port of Washougal’s Waterfront Park hosted a ribbon-cutting. Scott said not only will the park be a place for residents to walk a trail, lounge around and enjoy views of the Columbia River, but will also be a spot to host events.
“The port has enhanced a great space down on the river,” Scott said. “We have to strike a balance in planning. It’s a great asset we have on the river, and we want to make sure we continue the momentum we have downtown.”
Washougal officials didn’t request more land in the county growth plan, and if the city is going to grow in size, it has to head north. Washougal is bordered by the Columbia River to the south, Camas to the west and the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area to the east.
“It would take an act of Congress to change that border,” Scott said.
Instead of asking for more land, though, city officials decided to change around their plans for land already in the city’s growth boundary. The northwest corner of Washougal was marked as an area for an employment center. The city council recently voted to change plans for the area to residential with a little commercial.
“It would be adequate to fit what we need,” Scott said.
Part of the reason for the change is Washougal’s developing downtown, which has added about 20 new businesses and more than 250 jobs in the past five years. More jobs are expected to come, Scott said. There are two large plots of land a bit further down Main Street beyond the transformed downtown just waiting to be developed. One of the areas is owned by Wes Hickey and his company, Lone Wolf Investments, which has developed much of downtown Washougal already. The other open space is owned by Pendleton.
“We’re shifting employment down to the city center,” Scott said.
The downtown is a big part of Camas’ small-town appeal, Camas City Administrator Peter Capell said. If a storefront comes open downtown, it doesn’t stay open very long.
“What you’re seeing is the evolution of a small town,” said Phil Bourquin, Camas’ community development director. “Our residents are looking for more and more art and entertainment downtown.”
Continuing to build up the downtown is a major goal for the city in trying to keep its small-town feel.
Capell said the city is looking for mixed-use development downtown.
“People living near downtown, it makes it a thriving area,” Capell said. “It helps maintain the feel of the city.”
Bourquin said it’s also important to keep residents around.
“We want to make sure people have a job to return to in Camas after college,” he said. “We have to provide opportunities for the aging population and younger generation, and balance the demand for executive homes with homes for younger people.”
Like Washougal, Camas officials didn’t ask for more land. They think they can handle the city’s growth with what they already have, as the city annexed some land around Lacamas Lake in 2007 only to see development slow during the Great Recession. Those developments started to pick back up in recent years, so the city is playing catch up.
While many other cities are planning on how to navigate growth and deal with an influx of people, Camas already went through a drastic change in reputation. What was once a mill town is now a city of expensive homes and tech companies.
The shift started in the 1980s, Capell said. The change included moving the city outward, making some zone changes and allowing larger campuses, which helped snag companies like Sharp, WaferTech and Fisher Investments.
To see the change in Camas, one only has to look downtown, where things have gone in a cycle.
“During the primary mill days, the city limited how many liquor licenses could be downtown,” Capell said. “There were a bunch of rough bars. Now we don’t do that, but we have all these taverns and upscale breweries coming in.”
In Battle Ground, city officials are looking to keep that small-town feel and bring everyone closer together by divvying up the city into neighborhoods.
Erin Erdman, community development director in Battle Ground, said the city is in the early stages of looking at how different parts of the city fit together geographically and how to create individual identities for each neighborhood.
“It can keep the public more involved and help us communicate with them,” she said.
Splitting the city into neighborhoods can also help residents band together through neighborhood associations to tell the city what they want from Battle Ground.
The city is also looking at building up its parks and trails systems, so people will have places to recreate and can move around the city on foot. To do this, the city is requiring all multifamily developments to include a recreational element for residents.
When it comes to new buildings, the city has an ordinance in place to make sure development doesn’t stray from the city’s current look. In 1999, Battle Ground’s city council adopted Legacy Standards calling for architectural variety, pedestrian-friendly streetscapes and street networks that connect in a grid pattern when possible. The idea for the standards was to make the city feel welcoming to its residents.
“Battle Ground has specifically chosen to not want to be a bedroom community, but to be a full-service community,” said Sam Crummett, planning supervisor for the city.
Erdman said the city is looking for more job potential, which is why it asked for the added 80 acres in its growth boundary. The hope is to make the portions along state Highway 502 into commercial land with mixed use behind that, and to bring in some diversification in the economic base of the city, according to City Manager Jeff Swanson.
Even with the glitz of a large casino moving into town, La Center Mayor Greg Thornton is confident the city will maintain its small-town feel. The city is planning for it.
“We put an emphasis on quality development,” he said. “We recognize development is happening. It’s going to provide more opportunities for jobs. Our vision is to maintain that small-town atmosphere we all enjoy.”
Thornton said he’s hopeful the casino will help more people learn about all La Center has to offer while they’re in town to visit.
“We’re really trying to focus on making La Center a destination recreation area,” he said. “We have all these amenities surrounding us and they’re so incredible. We really want to highlight them.”
Thornton said the city will work on its tourism and outdoor recreation areas as the Ilani Casino Resort opens to try and show people the city is more than home to a casino.
When looking at the city’s future, Ilani — opening in the spring on the nearby Cowlitz Indian Reservation — is a major piece of development shadowing everything else going on in the city.
“It’ll have some impact on population, but it’s hard to ascertain what that will be,” Thornton said.
The casino already lowered the estimated population for La Center, which was at 9,000-plus in the 2008 comprehensive plan. When the Cowlitz Tribe put about 152 acres into a reservation, La Center no longer had that land along Interstate 5.
However, the casino is also helping La Center build for its future, as the casino will have a sewer line running to the east side of the freeway, which is land La Center acquired in the recent county growth plan.
“Our goal is to be able to provide jobs,” Thornton said. “It was a high priority to get that line out to the junction in order to facilitate commercial and industrial development.”
In August, the city contracted with a planning team to create a strategy for how to develop those 50 acres along I-5.
The other parcel the city received in the growth plan will go toward a new school. Thornton said the school district is still figuring out what grades the school will serve.
Information from: The Columbian, http://www.columbian.com