When I moved here more than a quarter century ago my boss asked what was the biggest issue faced by local communities. “Growth” was my answer. Though somewhat premature at the time, I might still give a similar response today.
Clatsop County has experienced a population expansion of around 14 percent since 1990. Pacific County added roughly 10 percent to its year-round residents in these years. In the growth sweepstakes, both are slugs compared to many other places around the Pacific Northwest. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Deschutes County’s population might triple its number of residents between 1990 and 2020, for example.
Growth, more narrowly defined as property development, has been a bigger issue here around the mouth of the Columbia River than population numbers suggest. Many of our beach communities have amazing percentages of vacation homes — approaching half the housing stock in some. This means the maximum potential population of some towns effectively doubles on summer weekends — a phenomenon we began to experience again during the recent Memorial Day weekend.
As our region’s metropolitan areas swell in population, dramatically running up home prices and rents, it’s possible to foresee local vacation homes gradually transitioning to something closer to full-time residences. If so, this will mostly be good. Too much housing dedicated to only seasonal use has a tendency of hollowing out communities, starving civic life of valuable citizens potentially willing to serve as council members, nonprofit volunteers, and customers at locally owned stores. Popular but under-staffed summer festivals are desperate for enthusiastic new organizers to maintain traditions going back generations. Recruits will come from the ranks of those who decide it is time to make the coast their full-time homes. If many new people arrive here, bringing the ideas and energy with them, most long-term residents will rejoice. But not all the time…
With such growth will come more traffic congestion — already a debilitating issue on summer weekends, when seasonal residents and tourists squeeze onto streets that are essentially designed for the year-round population. Housing costs, as we have seen, will be going up. Constrained by water bodies, wetlands, growth-management restrictions, landslide areas, and state and private forests, there simply isn’t as much developable land here as first meets the eye.
Constraints on housing are one reason why this spring we are seeing our local economy nearing something close to full employment. This is certainly the case in Clatsop County, and close to the truth in Pacific County where the jobless rate is twice as high, but where there is a longstanding pattern of people deliberately sitting out formal employment between fishing and tourist seasons.
For the reasons I’ve described and others, growth isn’t a panacea. But there’s ample reason to hope that the construction industry kicks into higher gear in coming months, building the kinds of dwellings that local jobholders can afford. Healthy communities require a good mix of housing stock — not only middle-to-high end single-family homes, but also good places appropriate for younger workers and lower-income retirees.
These growth issues and others will continue to require smart and dedicated planning long into the future.