The Corona virus is feeding on the future we’d imagined while the economy adjusts and neighbors lose their jobs and their lives. In that inescapable light, the City of Camas again convened a meeting Monday night to exclusively discuss "non-essential" city projects - this time to approve nearly $17m in land purchases. With an $8m roundabout followed by a nearly $17m land purchase while some neighbors struggle to breathe, we don’t ask IF these purchases are valid, we ask HOW can we even consider them now?
Days ago, Mayor McDonnell and the Camas City council proclaimed we would build an $8m roundabout on the morning of April 1st - making an argument on the city’s home page that it was an “Essential Public Infrastructure Project” and the intersection was “soon to reach failure” suggesting inevitable chaos should regular life resume. By that same evening, the project was put on hold with a separate press release.
Back on March 16th, when Council had approved the Lake/Everett roundabout project unanimously, the United States already had nearly 10,000 diagnosed cases of COVID-19 (with a lack of available testing). Two weeks forward to March 31st, now with 186,101 cases of COVID-19 diagnosed, up more than 23,000 from the previous day and about to jump 27,000 more the next day on April 1st, Mayor McDonnell officially signed the construction contract to proceed with the work - a decision that was his alone at that point. WATCH Camas received reports from citizens who’d contacted the city throughout the day of the 1st to object. By the evening of April 1st, the city fully reversed and stated they’d now place all city construction projects on hold for two weeks “In order to focus all efforts on fighting COVID-19”. Just 5 days later, the show continued- as Camas city council voted unanimously to approve nearly $17m in land purchases, affectionately known as “Legacy Lands”, at Monday’s virtual city council meeting.
What is a legacy land?
“Legacy Lands” is a brand name for a Clark County specific program run by the Clark County Conservation Futures Program (CFP). CFP states,
“The goals and objectives of the Conservation Futures Program (also known in Clark County as Legacy Lands) are aligned with the following legislative declaration: “RCW 84.34.200 Acquisition of open space, etc., land or rights to future development by counties, cities, or metropolitan municipal corporations... [development is] eliminating, numerous open areas and spaces of varied size and character, including many devoted to agriculture, the cultivation of timber, and other productive activities, and many others having significant recreational, social, scenic, or esthetic values. Such areas and spaces, if preserved and maintained in their present open state, would constitute important assets to existing and impending urban and metropolitan development, at the same time that they would continue to contribute to the welfare and well-being of the citizens of the state as a whole.….”
It’s easy to see that the preamble highlighted above leads to a specific intention that doesn’t actually count the citizens as it’s first beneficiary necessarily.
What’s next for Camas?
This first video below is from back in 2017 from the CFP. It mentions, “for example, the city of Camas is acquiring 70 acres on the north side of Lacamas Lake to expand the Lacamas Corridor Park and Greenway system." Former Mayor Scott Higgins presented the idea to Camas at the same time during a State of the Community meeting saying we'd be acquiring 96 acres (second video below). He calls it "an expensive project" with Camas only responsible for around $2m dollars at that point and says ominously, "we KNOW, this is something we are GOING to make happen".
Legacy Lands 2017 Video
Higgins 2017 video
We now know that Scott Higgins unexpectedly resigned as Camas mayor in the middle of his term the year after this video. He cited a focus on family and continued in a new position as Vice President at a local Clark County Real Estate Firm. Higgins, with no previous real estate experience prior, received his license and started his first real job as a Vice President in the same year that the video above was filmed, 2017.
Where does the money come from?
The Clark County Conservation Futures Program gets its funding through a levy that you pay through property taxes and grants that they apply for. The Board of County Commissioners adopted the Conservation Futures levy in October 1985 at the rate of 6-1/4 cents/$ 1,000 assessed value for the five-year period 1986-1990. On August 2, 1989, in public hearing, the Board of County Commissioners extended the Conservation Futures levy indefinitely.
How long is a legacy land a legacy land?
The “Legacy Lands Program Guidance Manual” states under a section titled “Conversion” the following,
“Clark County will approve any such conversion only upon conditions where the project sponsor can assure it will acquire substitute properties which are of equal or greater value at the time of conversion, which, to the extent feasible, are equivalent in usefulness and location, and which also meet the goals and objectives of the Conservation Futures Program.”
Unfortunately none of that language references law.
The standard set is subjective and seems to be up to a single person’s discretion, the Legacy Lands Program manager, Pat Lee. Hopefully Pat is a true steward of our land, but maybe the person after Pat won’t be? The point of law is that it’s a carried standard above and beyond individuals. The language of properties of “equivalent in usefulness and location” may be defined as “Camas lakefront property in a contiguous stretch across the entire north shore of Lacamas Lake” - and by that definition, this parcel is described as what it is, a unique and irreplaceable piece of Camas. Unfortunately, without strong legal language, this could just as easily be defined as, “a walkable stretch of land, adjacent (read within 5 miles) of a public water source” in that case any old creek out in the boonies of Camas may apply. Then the much more valuable lake front property could be converted to any need with unrestricted access.
The Inevitability problem
Giving the benefit of the doubt that the city may try to initially preserve these lands, we still lack a legal definition. So, without that legal definition, a “legacy land” north of our Lacamas Lake could easily be determined to be the only feasible spot to build a $78 million dollar aquatics center for instance, along with shops and restaurants to support it through tax revenue. It could also be determined that because we aim to make the area more walkable, we must demolish or decommission Leadbetter road entirely. As that is now our only real, direct access to the assigned elementary school at its end for many Camas children, we’d then need to fast track a new main road, higher above these lands to reconnect to Camas. And, because our kids need that road, we’d probably need to rush it onto a summer timeline, as was the plan with the roundabout. And finally, as we’re breaking ground for that road, we might as well decide that we’d then want to incorporate businesses and homes up there to support it, so we’ll likely need to also go ahead and lay utility lines, sewage and roads with names like "North Shore Blvd." along the way with fast tracked bidding and contracts.
You start to see where the North Shore fixation (that our city officials seem to champion) comes from, while most citizens have never actually encountered a real neighbor in Camas passionate for that work. At the same time, citizens like Randal Friedman, have taken time to give a reasoned explanation to local media as to why he feels Camas needs to pause sub-area planning to consider the whole city and especially our downtown sub-area. As imagined above, the collective work to continue on North Shore Subarea could easily see a price tag of $100m - $400m depending on who’s projecting.
The Camas Math Problem...
The $8m roundabout currently on hold started as a $2m roundabout. Back in the pool bond days, a traffic light at Lake and Sierra was projected to cost around $2m dollars, while the WA state average for a traffic light was $250k. The city is pretty faithful for a 4x to 8x multiple on their costs versus typical cost. When we start to discuss price tags in the hundreds of millions though, those multipliers can be devastating to local property taxes. As former Mayor Scott Higgins laid it out, these land acquisitions were 96 acres that would “eventually make it so that there is an entire greenspace around Lacamas Lake” - that was at a $4m total cost, with $2.6m from conservation futures and a $2.2m “sponsor match” cited (with a $700k donation of land value). Monday night, Camas city councilors voted unanimously to approve a $17m price tag for just two Legacy Lands properties - how did we get here again?
In 2017, Mayor Higgins said that City Administrator Pete Cappell and Parks and Rec Manager Jerry Acheson had been working for “quite a while now” to acquire this land. But Monday night, councilors and the mayor didn't even feel obliged to make that familiar argument again, citing Jerry Acheson, who is still with the city of Camas, “we’ve been working on this for quite a while” they’ll say and “we shouldn’t stop now. It makes too much sense to proceed”. Instead, they proceeded with nothing more than a vote and adjournment
90% of Camas voters flatly rejected a pool bond that had been discussed for 20+ years. Along the way council cried inevitability, voted unanimously and said they wanted the “full meal deal”. They never presented a plan to the scale of Camas and they demolished the historic Crown Park pool while Vancouver fully restored their 50+ year old municipal pool for around $2m.
8 citizens or the 90%?
In an inexplicable editorial defense of those Camas city councilors, The Camas Post Record recently opined that eight citizens stood up in support of the $78M bond at that fateful July meeting last Summer. The Council “listened” to them, and raised their hands in full support of their wants, even if it meant Aster Davis may be forced to leave her home of 57 years. Yet those same eight voices, as powerfully loud as they must have sounded to those few wanting to hear them in that moment, ended up representing only 10% of the will of Camas' electorate.
Like a bad rerun, Camas city leaders ignored any and all opposition on Monday night, including direct questions about why the property purchase price was 8 times higher than its’ tax appraisal value just 2 years ago. They ignorantly professed that no taxpayers funds were actually being used to fund the purchases, dismissing the reality that grants and TIFs and real estate excise taxes are ultimately paid by taxpayers. Not a word was uttered about relief to local businesses who are dangerously close to insolvency. No discussion about what the projected hit to our City finances might look like post-COVID. They offered zero explanation as to why the $10M loan to fund the purchase had actually been executed weeks in advance of Monday night’s vote. In fact, the meeting was merely a performance that had been written, cast, and rehearsed for weeks, months, even years in advance.
Because the outcome appears to have been predetermined, and Monday’s Camas city council meeting was little more than a necessary process to promote the appearance of citizen involvement and approval.
Not again Camas.
NOTE: This piece has been updated following Camas City Council's unanimous vote to approve purchase at the Monday, April 6th Remote Council Meeting.