Our Voice: Kennewick's urban growth request deserves serious review

Kennewick wants to entice industrial businesses to the city. To do that, Kennewick officials believe they must bring more land into the city's urban growth area.

Urban growth boundaries are used to control urban sprawl. High-density development can take place within the boundaries, while only low-density projects can be built outside.

Benton County has the decision-making authority for changes to urban growth boundaries for cities in its jurisdiction, but the state's rules limited consideration of applications for changes to once every five years.

A 1,263-acre patch of land south of Interstate 82 and west of Highway 395 is so important to Kennewick's plans for industrial development that it successfully lobbied state lawmakers last legislative session to change urban growth laws to allow for applications to be made more frequently.

Kennewick officials say the city has a severe lack of industrial land and has had to turn developers away. Bringing more industrial land into the fold is imperative. The jobs and spending that come with it are key to Kennewick's economic future.

The proposed change was reviewed in recent months by the Benton County Planning Commission. It recently failed to make a recommendation that would have been forwarded to the county commissioners for consideration in the decision.

The planning commission was at a disadvantage from the start. A majority of four is required for a recommendation to be made. The commission has seven positions, and two of them are vacant.

After much discussion and a 324-page packet of information to review, three voted to recommend the change, and two voted against it.

The ultimate decision is up to the county commissioners, but it is the job of the planning commission to review plans and make recommendations.

Opponents of the change say valuable farmland would be lost. The farmer who owns the majority of the land disagrees, saying it is no longer profitable as farmland. Much of the property is in the Conservation Reserve Program, a program designed to re-establish land cover. Farmers are paid an annual lease payment not to farm the land with the hopes of increasing water quality, preventing soil erosion and promoting wildlife habitat.

One could argue that a majority land owner in the area would be inclined to want to see the application approved because a lucrative sale is likely to follow.

County staff recommended the planning commission deny the request, and much of the documentation was related to the land's long-time agricultural use. County staff also found that the city has plenty of industrial lands already within its boundary to accommodate 20 years of growth. The city says the figures cited by the county include land that is being used as rights-of-way for railroads, utilities and other public agencies.

The state Department of Commerce conducted a brief review of the proposed change, and said justifying the changes Kennewick has requested would be "a difficult task."

None of that bodes well for an ultimate approval of the expansion the city says it so desperately needs. City officials say the land is ideal, and its other existing industrial areas are too small and too far from major highways. The land in question is flat and near major highways.

The city is ready to move forward and is "ready, willing and most importantly financially able to extend water and sewer into the proposed (urban growth area) once approved," said Mayor Steve Young. The state also has committed $1.5 million for infrastructure improvements, he said.

Despite the setbacks, we believe Benton County commissioners should give strong consideration to the application and accept it if opponents can't produce a more compelling reason to deny the request.

The Urban Growth Act was created to responsibly manage growth, not to end urban development. Preserving farm land that can't profitably be farmed doesn't make sense.

Especially when the land is ideal for much-needed industrial growth. The city says its largest parcel of industrial land is currently 17 acres. That does not give it a lot of room to grow or develop.