For several years, Tri-City municipal governments have worked to have the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers turn over to them hundreds of acres of Corps-owned, riverfront land.
Kennewick, Pasco and Richland have revealed a new plan to achieve their goal, but the reasons for wanting control of the Columbia River waterfront seem vague, and councilmembers have differing ideas.
At least publicly, the local governments have tried to portray a turnover as an opportunity for more recreational options. However, a Richland city councilmember has envisioned high-rise properties along the riverfront.
A councilmember in Kennewick seems to fear that the development aspect of the proposal will allow nothing more than “wakeboard rentals.”
The Corps began purchasing the land in the late 1940s to build dikes and provide flood protection from the pool created by the McNary Dam.
On Jan. 24 David Reeploeg, vice president for federal programs at the Tri-City Development Council (TRIDEC) met with the Richland City Council. TRIDEC President and CEO Karl Dye met with Kennewick City Council to discuss with them the new proposal.
“I think sometimes we hear from the public that boy, would be nice if we had just a little bit nicer parks, a little bit easier access to the river, some more amenities that are just really hard to have, if the shoreline is in federal ownership,” Reeploeg explained to the Richland council.
The Observer reached out to Reeploeg for details on the additional amenities he mentioned.
He responded in an email, “I don’t know of any specific amenities that the local governments would immediately proceed in developing if/when the land is transferred, but the attached Columbia Park Master Plan Vision provides some good examples of the types of amenities that are of interest. One of the major challenges with Corps ownership is the cost and timeline for getting projects reviewed and approved. For example, it will cost the City of Richland $9,000 and take six months just to get Corps approval to install one park bench at Leslie Groves Park (that number doesn’t include the actual costs for the bench and getting it installed), and the City of Kennewick was told it will take a year to complete the reviews for installing one new sign in Columbia Park.”
He added, “…This isn’t being critical of the Corps as they simply don’t have the personnel and resources they need. We just feel like the local governments, working with community and tribal stakeholders and going through state regulatory review processes, will be far more efficient.”
In the Columbia Park Master Plan Vision Summary that Reeploeg provided, residents answering a preference poll most often listed improving the ropes course and the aquatic playground as amenities they would like to see at the park.
Richland Councilmember Theresa Richardsons relayed her vision for the waterfront when she wrote Richland City Manager Jon Amundson last May.
“Jon – Should we have the opportunity, I would be in favor of developing a skyline of unique high rise properties along the river front,” Richardson wrote in an email to Amundson with a subject line, “Building Height Restrictions in Central Business District,” obtained by the Observer through a public record request.
When asked if she still supported that position, Richardson responded, “It depends on the project. My comment needs to be taken in context and has nothing to do with the transfer of property.”
The city of Richland has worked to develop a city-owned waterfront property next to the Riverfront Hotel between the Columbia Point Golf Course and the Columbia River. In October 2021, the land was rezoned from a park designation to waterfront.
The waterfront zoning description reads, “This zoning classification encourages mixed special commercial and high-density residential uses to accommodate a variety of lifestyles and housing opportunities.” Building heights in the waterfront zone are restricted to 35 feet but under special circumstances can be approved for up to 55 feet.
Reeplog tried to downplay the idea of massive development.
“You know a few years ago there was a concern that this kind of this effort was born out of a desire to massively develop the shoreline, and to put large apartment complexes or casinos or, you know, things like that on the shoreline. The desire is really just to maximize the public benefit use and enjoyment of our shoreline lands,” Reeploeg explained.
Reeplog told the Richland council that in a new, more limited approach, the cities would ask for land that they coveted the most and would leave flood control infrastructure with the Corps. An effort would be made to put the transfer in a congressional bill, either the National Defense Authorization Act or the Water Resources Development Act.
Congressman Dan Newhouse has said that he supports the project.
In Kennewick, Columbia Park would be the ask. Richland has three picks – 50 acres at the Reach Museum location, land at Columbia Point South for a second entrance to the property the city owns there, and a release from flowage easements.
Reeploeg said that Pasco was interested in Chiawana Park.
None of this can go forward without an agreement to honor the treaty rights of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation and the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation.
Kennewick and Richland are working on memorandums of understanding with the Umatilla to honor their treaty rights while working together to obtain Corps-owned riverfront land for the cities and the tribes.
New Richland Councilmember Ryan Whitten asked if the Corps-owned land at Columbia Point South would still be open to the public if it was transferred to the tribes.
Deputy City Manager Joe Schiessl responded, “It appears that both parties are on the same page that there should be a planning exercise to lay out the expected future of that land, and so far, at least talking about it being open and public.”
Schiessl described the city’s request as “a pretty light touch.” He outlined the two areas that the city seeks, near the Reach Museum and another near Highway 240.
The Art Center Task Force met with the Richland City Council during their August 30, 2022, workshop meeting to propose putting a performing arts center on that property. The councilmembers showed little interest in the proposal at that time as the task force also asked for a sales tax increase to support it.
The river trail in that location would remain with the Corps.
The second area near Highway 240 would allow Carriage Road to be extended under the highway to create a second entrance to Columbia Point South. The city already owns land in that area and has created a special recreational development zone for it. The zone allows lodges and water-related commercial businesses.
The third request would be to eliminate the flowage easements wherever they are in Richland.
A flowage easement is an agreement that allows an occasional flooding of land. The city believes that the dikes prevent flooding and the flowage easements are no longer needed.
Schiessl pointed out the Fire Station 71 on George Washington Way and Swift, which is behind a dike, has a flowage easement that could hinder the city in doing something else with the one-acre, riverfront property.
According to Schiessl, the city had to pay the Corps $250,000 to be released from the flowage easement on the land at 650 George Washington Way known as “the pit,” so it could be sold to the Park Place Apartment developers.
In Kennewick, Councilmember Brad Beauchamp told Dye, “People ask me all the time, what is the plan, reconveyance? I say truthfully, I had no idea… I would assume there’s some hope of development, more than wakeboard rentals, but I don’t know.”
Evelyn Lusignan, Kennewick public relations and customer service manager responded to Beauchamp, “That’s part of the legislative language. We had to identify which parcels would be maintained for recreational purposes, and what parcels that we would intend to have some limited commercial development…that are complementary to our park.”
As to when any transfer would occur, Richland Mayor Terry Christensen concluded, “Anytime you have the Feds involved and all the cities and the tribes, it doesn’t move very fast.”