Second-growth forests in east and north Washington State are sprouting a new crop: residential real estate.
The metal rooftops of several luxury recreational homes punctuate the forest canopy on the bluff above Swift Reservoir’s turquoise waters. View lots at Swift Cove, Marble Creek Estates and Swift View are going for up to $169,000. Swift Cove’s 14 lots sold in three years, and buyers quickly snapped up the four lots at Marble Creek.
Signs for Pine Creek East, along Forest Service Road 25, advertise “a new recreational community” with lots from $59,900 to $129,000. The subdivision, carved into second-growth forest stands 22 miles east of Cougar, is the first stage of a planned 200-house community that will include property within the Muddy River and Pine Creek watersheds.
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A California company, Fruit Growers Supply Co., is logging 160 acres north of Marble Mountain and has applied to Skamania County to develop the quarter-section with up to 35 houses on five-acre lots.
To say this area in the shadow of Mount St. Helens is off the grid is an understatement. There’s no land-use zoning up here, no electrical grid, no phone service, no public water or sewer, and no guarantee that Forest Service roads, which provide the only access, will be plowed in winter although the county currently pays the major developer in the area to keep Roads 90 and 25 open year-round. Police patrols are minimal and the volunteer fire department is not equipped to provide municipal-level fire protection.
Nonetheless, this large block of private timberland, bordered on three sides by the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, is the site of an improbable mini-land boom, part of a statewide rush to convert logged-over land to residential property.
Plans for future development of as many as 500 houses on more than 1,200 acres of former timberland in the area have some officials wondering where it will all end.
“It seems like a lot of development for such an isolated area,” said Jed Herman, a forest practices manager with the Washington Department of Natural Resources, who toured the area in May.
Washington law allows the immediate conversion of productive forest land to residential real estate as long as landowners notify county planners of their intent to convert and follow county ordinances, Herman said.
“We have no laws in the state that say, ‘You cannot convert,'” he said. Nor does the state have a handle on how much forest land is being subdivided, he added.
“The amount of land going to conversion is a figure no one knows. Our gut feeling is, (commercial forest land) is declining; by what rate is the question.”
The rush to convert productive forest land is a statewide phenomenon and is especially pronounced in the Puget Sound area, Herman said.
The type of timberland conversion occurring in Washington is not allowed in Oregon, where there are strict limits on development to protect productive forest land, said Carrie MacLaren, a staff attorney with the watchdog group 1000 Friends of Oregon. In Western Oregon, for example, one house is allowed on 160 acres of forest land.
“The straight-up conversion of log-and-develop could not happen in Oregon,” MacLaren said. “The only way it could happen is to get a zone change to rural residential.”
Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth estimates that 4,000 acres of commercial forest and agricultural land nationwide are lost to development every day. “If you drive in any direction, you see working farms, working ranches and working forests all giving way to development,” he said on a recent visit to Portland.
Though the Gifford Pinchot National Forest abuts some of the land proposed for development, Deputy Forest Supervisor Lynn Burditt said her agency has little control over adjacent private land.
“As long as they are meeting zoning rules, it’s between them and the county,” she said. “Our concern would be educating people about fire prevention on the national forest. The key piece is that services will have to come from the developers or the county. The Forest Service does not provide snowplowing or electricity.”
Skamania County, with fewer than 10,000 people, is exempt from the Washington Growth Management Act provision that requires counties to establish zoning ordinances and urban growth boundaries. The only brake on density in the county’s north end is a two-acre minimum lot size imposed by the county health department for septic tank permits, and even that rule allows exceptions.
County Commissioner Paul Pearce, whose district includes the county’s north end, said commissioners recognize that the north end of the county is changing fast. “Good stewardship requires that we are going to have to look at some of the planning issues,” he said. “There is concern from the environmental community about unbridled development.”
Dave Creagan and Jerry Sauer, business partners in the development of Swift Cove, Swift View, Marble Creek Estates and Pine Creek, say most of their buyers are residents of the Portland-Vancouver area who relish the remoteness.
They’re attracted by stunning views of Swift Reservoir, the peace and quiet, and the chance to live near Mount St. Helens and the recreational wonderland of the Upper Lewis River, where opportunities for fishing, hunting, boating and hiking abound.
“My wife and I enjoy being off the power grid and away from telephones,” said Fire District 6 Chief Frank Yela, who is building a house at Pine Creek East. “We both work high-pressure jobs. We hunt and fish and hike in the area.”
Real estate agent Nita Creagan-King, Dave Creagan’s mother, is marketing the properties along Swift Reservoir and Pine Creek. “A lot of people are buying the property as an investment,” she said
So far, about 20 houses have been built on land sold by Creagan and Sauer’s Woodland-based company, Three Rivers Recreation Area.
Most who buy and build plan to use their homes as summer recreation getaways, but clients “do occasionally ask about road access,” especially in winter, Creagan-King said.
Creagan Excavating, owned by Dave Creagan and brother Jeff Creagan, plows the Forest Service’s 90 and 25 roads in winter under a contract with Skamania County, thus assuring that buyers will have access to their homes for cross-country skiing and snowmobiling.
Fruit Growers, a logging company affiliated with Sunkist, the California fruit-growers’ cooperative, owns about 4,000 acres of former Weyerhaeuser land north of Swift Reservoir.
“At this point, they are proposing to develop 160 acres as 32 to 35 residential lots,” said Karen Witherspoon, Skamania County planning director. “If those sell, they will develop more. ”
The project, immediately adjacent to the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, will require building 2,400 feet of new road and widening 6,000 feet of existing road. The only access to the area is via Forest Road 83, which the Forest Service does not plow in winter.
The county hopes to begin work on a land-use plan for the Swift Reservoir area in 2007.
About 40 people turned out for a recent town hall meeting in Northwoods, a community of 206 recreational cabins east of Cougar, to discuss the area’s future. The response was less than enthusiastic, Commissioner Pearce said.
“Right now, there is not a groundswell up there. They weren’t very interested in a planning process. And neither the Cowlitz nor the Skamania (Public Utility District) seems to be too excited about bringing power in there.”
Developers and county officials have approached the Skamania Public Utility District about extending service from Carson to the Swift Reservoir area, a distance of more than 25 miles. That would be prohibitively costly, said Lisa Allen, an account clerk with the agency.
“Because we don’t have any service lines up there, we would probably have to have an agreement with the Cowlitz PUD to serve them,” she said.
For now, purchasers must supply their own electrical generators, at a cost of $25,000 to $30,000 for each property.
Fire District 6, which serves the area, has 22 volunteers. Most have cabins at Northwoods and live in them mainly in the summer and on weekends.
The department puts out a structure fire once every three to four years, volunteer chief Yela said. It also provides emergency medical services and fights wildfires with backup from the Forest Service and the Department of Natural Resources.
Fire district commissioners met with developers in August to discuss whether the department’s firefighting resources will be adequate to meet the need for services as the area’s population grows.
“As it expands, we will need more water resources” such as pumps and fire hydrants,” Yela said. “We will have to create the resources we need to provide adequate protection.” He expects developers to contribute to that effort.
Speaking as a homeowner rather than as fire chief, Yela added that he has reservations about plans for higher-density development off Road 25, where some lots on community water systems will be as small as one acre. “I am concerned that the density is going to change the area.”(AP)