WOODLAND — There are plans to build hundreds of homes both inside and just outside Woodland’s city limits over several years.
The city’s elementary schools are packed, and Woodland Public Schools is considering building another.
The city also is proposing a new Interstate 5 exit to reduce traffic in the city center.
After the recession halted a spurt of early-century growth, Woodland is gearing up for another boom that is increasing traffic, converting farmland into housing subdivisions, likely to drive up taxes and making Woodland’s population probably the youngest in Cowlitz County. Not everyone wants the changes, but many residents see them as inevitable.
“It’s coming. There’s no stopping them,” said George Tsugawa, 96, owner of Tsugawa Nursery, who’s lived in Woodland for over six decades.
“It’s inevitable that it’s going to happen, so do it under a controlled, managed program,” said former True Value owner Tom Golick, a Woodland resident since 1976. “You’re not going to stop it, so you might as well embrace it.”
Others are a bit more cautious about the growth, not wanting Woodland to become a mere bedroom community for commuters to the Portland metro area.
“If we build up our industry ... (and) have good paying jobs, then I think it’s a good thing,” said Woodland Truck Line co-owner Darlene Johnson, a Woodland resident since 1967. “If we’re just going to have a lot more homes and become a bedroom community, then I don’t consider it a good thing.”
That growth is likely driven by rising housing prices in Clark County and construction of the Ilani casino in north Clark County. Woodland Community Development Director Travis Goddard expects growth to continue, as there’s already talk that, in the next several years, 500 homes will rise in the unincorporated Whalen Road area near Horseshoe Lake and another 200 will be built in east Woodland, near the Intermediate School.
The city is currently on a 50-to-55 houses-per-year schedule, according to Goddard.
Mayor Will Finn has taken a decidedly pro-growth stance, to a point.
“I am willing to allow the city to grow,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of mixed feelings when it comes to this conversation. If we grow ... we’re going to lose that small-town feel. We’re being very conscious and aware of the fact that we’re trying to find a balance.”
However, Darlene Johnson warned that building homes while neglecting industry is a bad plan.
“If we have a commercial base, then you can afford to have good schools,” she said. “But if all you have is houses, and you don’t have the industrial base, your property taxes get so high that people start voting down levies.”
With more houses come more kids. According to Woodland Public Schools Superintendent Michael Green, his district’s primary, intermediate and middle schools are stuffed.
“Next year, we’ll have nine sections of third grade. I think when I arrived here 11 years ago, we had five,” he said.
According to a 2016 U.S. Census estimate, 35 percent of Woodland’s population is under the age of 18. For comparison, minors make up only 22.4 percent of Longview, 23.8 percent of Kelso, and 23.1 percent of fast-growing Vancouver.
And according to Woodland Public Schools, its population is expected to grow about 9.5 percent between 2017 and 2023.
Woodland has already prepared for student growth: Just three years ago, it built a brand-new, $62.5 million high school to replace its cramped, older building.
Now, it’s Woodland Primary (serving grades K-1) and Intermediate (grades 2-4) schools that are filled — the latter is 54 kids over building capacity, according to school district data. And Green said he’s considering adding another school to service early education.
Although a bond for building the high school failed twice before finally passing in 2012, Green said he isn’t too worried about asking Woodland voters for yet more money.
“We have a very reasoned and pragmatic public here ... They will support when they see a need,” he said. “It’s our job to help the community understand the need.”
Tom Golick is a bit more skeptical that residents will be willing to shoulder another bond.
“We have an extremely huge bond out on the high school, which isn’t anywhere near being paid for,” he said. “The last election, three bonds went down the tube because people are tired of being asked for more money.”
In addition to more schools, the growing town will need more police officers and better streets, Finn said.
A proposed levy that would have added two additional police officers failed by 17 votes in the 2017 election, and a sales tax increase for street improvements also barely failed the same year.
“Half of the community is saying, ‘Yes, I want more cops,’ and the other is saying, ‘I don’t want better cops, I want better roads,’ “ he said. “It’s just right down the middle, and it’s very frustrating because we’re trying to find solutions for everybody and listen to the majority.”
According to Finn, Woodland Police Department only has 10 officers, including Chief Jim Kelly, and he believes that’s simply not enough.
“You’re talking about bringing in (700) homes, plus more business development. Who’s going to patrol that?” he said. “How’s that going to be managed effectively with our current services? We can’t do it.”
Woodland already has traffic problems, and they’ll get worse as industrial growth west of downtown takes place. One effort to reduce the pressure is building new southbound-only Interstate 5 on- and off-ramps south of Horseshoe Lake. Some people are worried its too close to the Lewis River bridge, limiting the length of the the acceleration lane to merge onto the freeway.
Still, Exit 21 to the downtown area is a mess. Johnston calls it “a nightmare,” Golick calls it “a major failure.”
Finn said he believes the community is divided on his administration’s decisions to accommodate new businesses (like the B. Young RV dealership, which recently broke ground on Atlantic Avenue) and homes.
“Not everyone’s going to be happy, which means I guess we’re all doing our job,” he said. “I was told early on that at some point within your four years, you will upset everyone. If you can do that, then you’ve done your job.”
Tsugawa only hopes that Woodland’s new citizens will enjoy the town as much as he has.
“Woodland’s a heck of a nice place to live,” he said. “I myself would like to stay here the rest of my life.”