Extensions Stimulate Economy: Three States Cannot Be Wrong, But the Columbian Is

The From the Ground Up Real Estate Team at Miller Nash feels compelled to respond to an article entitled “County Aids Some Plans for Building” that appeared on the front page of the Columbian on Sunday, September 13, 2009, and a follow-up editorial that appeared on September 15, 2009, entitled “What’s That Smell?” We offer a different perspective and one that provides evidence that the Board of County Commissioners made policy decisions similar to those of other jurisdictions up and down the West Coast.

The Columbian insinuated that the Board had acted out of favoritism in extending permitting deadlines for individuals who contributed to their members’ various campaigns. But we believe that the Columbian‘s insinuation fails because it ignores the fact that the Board acted in support of a vital part of Clark County’s economy. And the extension is simply an attempt by the Board to create a local economic stimulus package with the tools now available.

In fact, extensions for development projects are not something that Clark County dreamed up on its own to favor a few developers. The May 2009 Washington State Bar Environmental and Land Use section newsletter contains an article entitled “Maintaining Vested Rights in the Recession: New Local Permit Extension Measures and Practical Tips for Applicants.” The article details a variety of things that jurisdictions in the Puget Sound area are doing in order to stimulate development. On November 13, 2008, Pierce County adopted the first extensions for certain land use approvals. The article also cites King County and the cities of Seattle, Sammamish, Everett, and Bonney Lake as adopting similar extensions for land use approvals. These jurisdictions either adopted or were considering extensions long before the Clark County Board of Commissioners adopted an extension.

And similar extensions are being adopted in Oregon and California. The City of Portland extended expiration dates for most land use decisions issued from May 2006 to December 2008 until June 2012. The City of Gresham now allows a one-year extension for all land use applications. The City of Oregon City extended all land use approvals from one to two years, with an option of an additional year through an extension application. In Washington County, the Board of County Commissioners passed an ordinance to grant an automatic one-year extension to approvals that would have expired during the next year. In California, the state legislature saw the issue of granting extensions for land use approvals for two years as an integral part of its recovery plan. Governor Schwarzenegger recently signed the bill into law.

This Board believed, as other jurisdictions do, that one of the best tools it had to preserve property value and create a local stimulus was to ensure that projects that were delayed because of the worldwide economic crisis could go forward. The ordinance that the Board adopted covered a broad base of applications, from commercial site plans to conditional uses to subdivisions, without calling out specific development projects for specific treatment. Factually, the Columbian‘s assertions fail because other jurisdictions have done the same and the ordinance is broadly applied.

The recession that began in 2007 is in large part due to problems in the housing and credit markets. And one of the many dangers that may slow recovery is that expiring plats or site plans will further reduce the ability of many of our banks to extend credit because property value is lost when approvals expire. And declining property value hurts everyone in the public, since property taxes on unentitled property have less taxable value. Policymakers understand this concept all too clearly, and that is why governments have been granting extensions.

We are distressed that these articles appear to single out a few developers and attempt to link campaign contributions and favoritism. While public policy is often made when a constituent, campaign contributor, or lobbyist brings a problem to the attention of a public official, it is the public official’s job to develop the public policy to the benefit of the larger public. Preserving property value benefits homeowners and the public. Allowing projects to move forward will create construction jobs, especially important now, since Clark County has the worst unemployment rate in the state. Residential projects are often unfairly derided, but it is these additional “rooftops” that attract new commercial and industrial development. Growth in all sectors will continue to allow Clark County to evolve into a major economic force in the region and, it is hoped, the country as a whole.