November 7, 2006

Rising Urban Tide; Landowner Group Has Vision for Lacamas Lake Development

By DEAN BAKER Columbian staff writer

CAMAS -- John and Michael Mills remember rowing across Lacamas Lake 40 years ago to fish and ramble through the giant old-growth firs of the "Black Forest" on the lake's south shore.

The boys loved to frolic in the deep woods that their grandparents and great aunts called "Pomaria." Branches wrapped around and towered over the mysterious 26-room, bark-covered Fern Lodge, a vacation getaway built of huge old-growth logs under the watchful eye of their grandfather, Pittock "Pete" Leadbetter.

Now, the forest is logged and the lodge is gone, replaced by the curving cul-de-sacs and million-dollar houses of Lacamas Shores. The speed of the transformation stunned the brothers.

"It was a shock to see it," said Portlander John Mills, 53.

Times have changed. Mills family members say they still feel a family obligation to preserve their 95 acres along the north shore as a slice of bucolic splendor. But they want to do that by embracing and guiding development, not by resisting it.

To plan the area's future, they have joined their parents, John and Kate Leadbetter of Hood River, Ore., their two other brothers, Lewis and Edward Mills, and 11 neighboring property owners to develop 544 acres of woods and pasture: the Lacamas Northshore plan.

It would become the largest single development in Clark County in more than 20 years.

They want to build up the lands as a whole, creating a new north Camas community: 3,000 or more residents, with 5,000 new jobs in business parks.

The Camas city council and Clark County commissioners are backing the idea.

The Mills family is following the lead of longtime Camas dairymen Leroy and Lynn Johnston, owners of 265 acres of pasture and 350 pure- bred Holstein cows just north of the Mills' property.

"The writing is on the wall," said Lynn Johnston, 47. "Dairies and cities are not compatible." The Johnstons have decided to trade dairying for development.

The Johnstons and Mills are the biggest players in the Lacamas Northshore coalition, which is pushing the county's biggest proposed unified building plans since Mount Vista, Cascade Park and Fisher's Landing took shape in the 1970s and 1980s.

Both Mills brothers are trained as professional planners. With their neighbors, they'd like to see 1,580 homes built north of the lake over the next couple of decades along with clean businesses attracting 5,000 workers.

"We're not talking smokestacks," said Lynn Johnston. They foresee office parks and upscale homes, not sprawling businesses.

They'd also like to nurture and clean up the polluted lake and protect its shore as a wooded, public area. They want to keep wetlands and lots of huge old cedar trees and scenic rock outcroppings, build parks and add a right-of-way for a new thoroughfare for a future Camas-Battle Ground freeway. They want to install a hiking and bicycling trail around the lake and perhaps build a new school or community center.

"You can minimize conflicts when you have that much area," said John Mills. "We want to do it right."

Michael Mills, 52, said they'll keep the 104-year-old Victorian mansion, which is on the National Register of Historic Buildings and stands on the lake shore. The brothers think it could take on a new life as a restaurant or bed and breakfast.

The mansion was built as a honeymoon cottage for their great- grandparents, Fred Leadbetter and Caroline Pittock Leadbetter. Chinese laborers are said to have built the landmark house in five weeks in 1902. Caroline Pittock was the daughter of the Mills brothers' great-great grandfather, Henry Pittock, the longtime owner of The Oregonian newspaper and the founder of Camas and its paper mill.

"Fred and Caroline were in a hurry," said John, with a smile. "They wanted to live there all the time, but it really was more of a summer house. We love the house. It's going to stay there."

Commissioners back idea

The Camas City Council and Clark County commissioners have tentatively embraced the idea of a large, unified development. Mayor Paul Dennis said the city is eager to tackle the problem of cleaning up Lacamas Lake, which would lie wholly inside the city if an annexation is approved. The city would be eager to develop parks and a complete trail system around the lake, the mayor said.

Besides the city, four other parties would have jurisdiction over the lake: the state, which owns all lakebeds; the county, because a 67-square-mile rural watershed supports the lake; the Department of Fish and Wildlife, which plants fish; and the Georgia-Pacific mill, which owns water rights.

Once county approval of the plan is established, the property owners can apply for annexation and the city can find the financing to build roads, sewers and water systems. The legal wrangling and infrastructure construction is bound to take more than five years and probably 10, backers say. Then houses and business could be built.

Dairy farmers see no future

The idea for the coalition came from the Johnstons, the father- son owners of the 80-year-old prize-winning dairy often cited as the best in Southwest Washington.

They operate one of only six dairies still milking cows in Clark County. They'd like to keep farming, but the Johnstons say they can't stop the expansion of Camas.

"If the county really wanted to preserve dairies and farming, it should have started 30 years ago," said Lynn Johnston. "It's too late." Environmental and economic pressures are slowly making farming impossible in the county, he said.

The Johnstons aim to adapt as best they can, while also preserving their family heritage. Perhaps, they dream, the Johnston pasture could be the site of a Fortune 500 corporate headquarters, like Nike's campus in Beaverton, Ore.

The property owners want to mix business and residential to form a community that's livable. They don't expect to seek large industries such as WaferTech.

Leroy Johnston, 71, sees their land as one of the last sizeable pieces available for commercial development in the county. His father, Roy Johnston, founded the dairy in 1926. He raised his family with 40 cows, while Leroy ran the dairy with 60 cows. Now Lynn and his wife, Alison, who have no children, run 350 cows and have six employees.

"It's not my first choice to stop dairying," said Lynn. "I'd keep doing this if I could. But that doesn't seem realistic."

Instead the potential for development seems huge.

"We're hoping for something that is award-winning, that we can really be proud of," said Shane McGuffin, a Lacamas Northshore partner who lives on six acres in the area and is an associate with Kimbal Logan Real Estate & Investments, the coalition's planner.

Note of caution

Among coalition property owners and their neighbors, only Jo Rose, owner of 54 lakefront acres next to the Mills and Johnston properties, has raised a caution flag.

She said she's worried the development will be too dense, too business-oriented, and might fail to bring about her dream of having a trail around the lake. Rose says she and her husband, Jerry, want to preserve their land for "estate-like parcels," rather than "high- density housing."

But creating buffers for the lake and mixing varied housing and businesses is the key feature of the plan, McGuffin said. The coalition plans to find the best use for all the properties, and maintain the advantages of each part of the package.

The group also expects to preserve the historic J.D. Currie Youth Camp and to convert narrow, curving Leadbetter Road into a biking and hiking trail.

The Lacamas Northshore plan doesn't stand alone for development north of the lake.

Farther north, a Green Mountain group is proposing the addition 494 more acres in the Camas urban growth area. That land would include the Green Mountain Golf Course. Overall, the addition of 1,038 acres is proposed in the Lacamas Northshore and Green Mountain areas, including 771 acres that can be developed.

But the Lacamas Northshore bloc is attempting to move independently of Green Mountain, and as quickly as possible, so all members of the coalition can afford to stick with the bloc and make a unified development possible. If it takes too long, backers say, some property owners could decide to move ahead and develop their property as standalone subdivisions.

That could crack the master plan.

"This is an unusual opportunity," said Michael Mills. "It won't hold together forever."

Dean Baker writes about history, Camas, Washougal and eastern Clark County. Reach him at 360-759-8009 or e-mail [email protected]


* Previously: The Lacamas Northshore coalition of 12 property owners campaigned to develop 544 acres of woods and pasture just north of Lacamas Lake into business parks, houses, parks, a school, a hiking-biking trail with public access to Lacamas Lake, and a right-of-way for a future Camas-Battle Ground freeway.

* What's new: Clark County commissioners have given their tentative approval to adding the properties and an additional 494 acres in the Green Mountain area to the Camas Urban Service Boundary, a first step toward allowing development.

* What's next:

The Lacamas group wants to develop the area in an orderly way and create a unique enclave supporting 1,580 home sites and 5,000 jobs, the biggest planned development since Cascade Park and Fisher's Landing were developed in the 1970s and 1980s.

Lacamas Northshore owners

Leroy and Lynn Johnston 265 acres

John Mills and family 95 acres

Jerry and Jo Rose 54 acres

Gregg Weakley 40 acres

Merie Cisney 30 acres

Ed and Jackie Buma 28 acres

Robert and Debra Cisney 10 acres

David and Alexis Mason 10 acres

Shane and Melissa McGuffin 6 acres

Steven and Rachel Ware 3 acres

Roy and Judith Ware 1.5 acres

Edward Borowski 1.5 acres

Total 544 acres

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