SOUTH BEND — The mood was celebratory inside the Willapa Harbor Community Center last Friday, as county stakeholders and students and faculty from the University of Washington held a formal launch event and shared early accomplishments in the first few months since the partnership began.
First announced last November, the Pacific County Economic Development Council and UW’s Livable City Year program have teamed up for a multi-year effort to connect county planning projects with courses from UW’s Department of Urban Design and Planning to advance local livability and economic development goals.
Livable City Year (LCY) is a university-wide program that has worked with local governments and stakeholders over the past seven years to connect locally identified projects with students and courses who best align with the work. The program has previously worked with the cities of Sultan and Bainbridge Island, as well as King County, among several other communities.
Speaking virtually at the Jan. 27 hybrid launch event, UW’s Vice President of External Affairs, Randy Hodgins, hailed the partnership between the university and local stakeholders as an example of how UW’s impact and reach extends statewide and is not just limited to its homebase of Seattle.
Hodgins said Pacific County is personally important to him, as it was represented by Long Beach’s Sid Snyder in the state Legislature, whom he considered a mentor when he worked in Olympia in the 1980s and 90s.
“We’re passionate about contributing back to the communities of Washington,” Hodgins said, noting the university received the Carnegie Community Engagement Classification from the Carnegie Foundation in 2020, which is a framework for the assessment and recognition of community engagement in higher education institutions across the country. “We’re always looking for opportunities to connect and engage, particularly in Southwest Washington.”
Branden Born, an associate professor and co-director of the LCY program, said the projects that the program works on are driven by communities that it is partnering with. He estimated the program has completed about 100 programs in the seven years since its inception, with the involvement of some 1,000 students. The program benefits both the communities it partners with and the students who are involved with it, he said, noting it exposes many students to working in the public sector who may have not considered a career in public service.
“This partnership takes the energy, the enthusiasm, the knowledge of the students who are learning the things at the university, and it applies that to communities who are asking for those specific questions to be addressed, answered, assisted, or have ideas generated,” Born said. “There’s so many things that might come out of this partnership.”
What struck Born and other LCY leaders when they began exploring a partnership with the EDC is the “magic” that was apparent from the get-go. Local stakeholders, including EDC executive director Sue Yirku and Ocean Park consultant and county planning commissioner Kelly Rupp, sent over a long list of prospective projects that they were interested in collaborating with the program on, many of which caught their attention. The work on those projects now span across two of UW’s campuses and a handful of its departments.
“It really is the beginning of a relationship between these two organizations; the university and the county EDC. We’re excited to be here,” Born said, adding that the students who came to the county late last year were “enthralled” by their visit.
Speaking on behalf of their 400-level class from the fall, Community, Environment and Planning (CEP) students Amy Burdick and Bridget Wipfler shared a presentation on the property inventory project that a group of students worked on last year.
The project was broken up into two separate phases: Conducting background research and creating a list of standards, and then creating a database — along with a map visual — of properties that could be utilized to help increase workforce and affordable housing in Pacific County.
Through background research, which included a trip to the area in November, the group sought to learn more about the county and its four municipalities, zoning rules and regulations to better understand where and which type of developments can be built, sewer and electrical connections, and the environmental analysis — such as soil and floodplains — that could affect buildings.
“In our project, the context of Pacific County shifted a lot in our understanding, because there’s only so much you can find out through research online,” Wipfler said. “We learned so much by going there and talking with people.”
That research informed the students when it came to creating a list of standards on what type of properties would be best for the county to target for purchase, such as whether a parcel is located in a critical area, what kind of public utilities are readily available, the price and size of the property, and what it’s zoned as.
The project takes into consideration the county’s large at-risk population, which includes low-income elderly, disabled, houseless and unconnected people. The visit to the county, Burdick and Wipfler said, also better informed them about the role that tourism plays in the economy as well as in the local housing market — particularly on the peninsula.
The rural geography of Pacific County was also a factor, such as the fact that many land areas are not suitable for development due to their wetland habitat, and the barriers created by zoning codes when it comes to new construction. The project also took into account the need for affordable housing of different stripes — such as single- and multi-family dwellings, dorm-style housing, and tiny homes — to support workers in the critical local industries of hospitality, fishing and timber.
In the end, dozens of currently available properties across the county were identified in the database, and about 70 of the most desirable properties — including 35 on the peninsula — were mapped. It includes a wide variety of lots, such as those that have existing buildings on them, those that are completely undeveloped, and some that could be targeted for redevelopment to help meet the county’s housing needs. The database includes each property’s parcel number, street address, price, acreage, zoning, and which public utilities — including broadband, sewer and water — it currently has access to.
At the end of their presentation, Burdick and Wipfler touted the feedback they received from local stakeholders and wished they had visited sooner — specifically mentioning how much they enjoyed their trip to Long Beach.
“One big takeaway is that we wish we went right away during the quarter to meet everyone,” Wipfler said. “There’s so much you can do via email or Zoom, but in just a few days we really learned a lot and were able to meet everyone and gain way more insight than we could have imagined.”
Looking at reform
The second presentation at the launch event was given by another CEP student, Jackson Deese, and took a look at the zoning and permitting processes in the county and its four municipalities, and what kind of reforms could be put in place to facilitate more housing developments.
One focus area that this project honed in on was the use of ADUs — accessory dwelling units — within the county and the municipalities, particularly whether they are allowed to be rented out. The group found that ADUs can only be rented out to temporary guests in Raymond and unincorporated Pacific County, and is disallowed outright in Ilwaco. Long Beach’s rules on renting ADUs were not specified, Deese said. South Bend, which updated its policy within the past year, is the only community where ADUs are allowed as permanent housing.
“ADUs are a very valuable piece of creating affordable housing, and if you limit them to simply owner-occupied — or completely outlawed in general — then it kind of defeats the purpose,” Deese said.
In looking at the permitting for building in Pacific County, Deese said the group found it to be a long and arduous process compared to that of other communities in the state that they looked at. Grays Harbor County, for example, has an online application process that is broken up into three sequential steps, while also exempting ADUs of less than 800 square feet from permitting outright.
In comparison, they said Pacific County’s process is complicated, has unclear fee estimates, takes anywhere from 3-8 weeks for a permit to be issued, and requires an “extraordinary” amount of effort by the applicant. A series of different applications are required by the county, some of which call for creating a site plan and declaring your planning or building intent — and can be subject to several inspections depending on the location, all of which must be coordinated by the applicant.
Along with removing restrictions on ADUs as a short-term recommendation, long-term permitting recommendations made by the group include streamlining the permitting process by consolidating all of the necessary documents into just a few, easier-to-digest documents that are available to be filled out online. Revamping the county’s outdated website and online tools to “make it a little more 21st century” would make it easier for professional and individual developers to access and use would also help, Deese said to knowing laughs from those in attendance.
In regards to short-term zoning recommendations, the group said Long Beach and Ilwaco in particular should consider slowing down or restrict the expansion of Resort Residential zoning to help stabilize the housing market and allow for growth of single- and multi-family zoning.
A possible long-term solution that could help facilitate additional housing is for specific zoning codes to be added to certain areas within cities. For example, the group said residential areas that are near commercial areas — such as grocery stores — could be zoned as multi-family housing or mixed-use residential to make those community assets more accessible.
In regards to the oft-used GIS (Geographic Information Services) mapping, the group recommended that the county and municipalities use the newest 2020 census data to create maps that show where new housing could be built and promote that information to the public. Easy access to zoning information and the awareness of the current housing situation will make housing development easier, they said.
“Pacific County doesn’t have the capability to be a Seattle, nor should they want to be a Seattle,” Deese said. “So all of these recommendations should be the Pacific County version of them, whatever that might entail. But I think it’s worth mentioning that whatever they are, they should reflect what Pacific County wants.”
Ongoing, future plans
Currently, the partnership is in the midst of a couple of other projects, with more planned to get underway in the spring.
One active project is the completion of a Housing Needs Assessment, which is a study required for counties and cities by Washington’s Growth Management Act as part of comprehensive plan updated and is used to identify future housing needs that serve all segments of the community. Each of the municipalities in the county last completed their latest comprehensive plan updates prior to the covid-19 pandemic, and aren’t reflective of the surge in home prices and rents that the area has witnessed since the pandemic began.
A future project includes a Land Capacity Analysis, which is a methodology conducted by counties and cities to determine the amount of vacant, partially used or otherwise underutilized lands to accommodate growth. It also looks at the redevelopment potential of built properties. LCAs are used to determine if an existing urban growth area can accommodate 20 years of growth.
The most eye-opening project further down the road is completion of a Willapa Bay Ferry feasibility study, which would connect a pedestrian and bike ferry from the Port of Peninsula in Nahcotta to the Tokeland Marina — as well as possibly Bay Center or South Bend. The ferry, if it were to come to fruition, would complete a round-the-county tourism trail.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that ADUs may only be rented out to temporary guests in South Bend. The city allows the use of ADUs for permanent housing.
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