Guest Opinions

DNR is using public lands to strengthen Tri-City economy | Guest Opinion

When Washington became a state in 1889, Congress granted our state millions of acres of land. The stipulation? The state would manage these lands to support public schools, public universities and a host of other critical government services.

At that point, 320 people lived in Pasco.

Now, 75,000 people call Pasco home. It’s one of the fastest-growing areas in the United States.

That has led the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) — which manages 6 million acres of public land, including 1 million acres of farmland — to re-evaluate part of its portfolio in the Pasco area. The goal is simple: ensure that public lands are both generating funding for our schools and helping grow and strengthen Pasco’s economy.

Specifically, tucked up next to Interstate 182 and Road 68 were a pair of irrigation pivots on state-managed land. This area used to be farmland, but now it’s prime real estate, with new homes and businesses for more than a mile in any direction.

When you look at aerial photos of the property, you can see how the explosive growth of Pasco has surrounded the once-rural farmland.

When the times change, we must change with them. It no longer makes sense to use this urban property for agriculture. That is why DNR is working with local partners, like the City of Pasco, to optimize the use of this land by developing homes and businesses.

In order to develop this property, we need to build infrastructure. DNR worked with the Legislature this year to secure $4 million for the Pasco local improvement district (LID). That money is extending Chapel Hill Boulevard from Road 68 to Road 84 and bringing utilities and sidewalks along with it, creating access to 73 acres of future commercial development. This commercial development means more jobs and services for Pasco, and it also means more funding for our schools. Once this public land is developed, it will generate up to $2 million each year for K-12 school construction across Washington.

By making forward-thinking investments like this on state-managed lands, we not only serve the public institutions that rely on the revenue, we also create jobs and help sustain economic growth in the greater Tri-Cities area.

This is a team effort. More than $730,000 in development credits are available from the City of Pasco for prospective lessees, helping offset startup costs and allowing businesses to hit the ground running.

The LID is just the latest in a series of recent investments DNR has made to boost the economy around the Tri-Cities. Earlier this year, a $23 million pipeline project brought irrigation to thousands of acres of state-managed farmland in Benton County, saving more than $40 million worth of water rights in the process. That project — the Paterson Pipeline — will also bring in four times more revenue for K-12 schools and Washington State University than the lands did before, while increasing county revenues sixfold.

DNR also entered into a first-of-its-kind lease to generate solar power on state lands earlier this year. Land once leased at $2 per acre per year is now generating hundreds of dollars per acre for school construction, while also creating clean energy and family-wage jobs near Bickleton, in eastern Klickitat County. Dozens of other sites on state land across Southeast Washington meet solar developers’ needs, and DNR is working toward using these parcels to create more clean energy — and more jobs — across the region.

The optimization of state lands around the Tri-Cities is by no means done, either.

Like the DNR-managed parcel in Pasco, another tract of land deeded to the state by Congress in Richland was similarly surrounded by development. The city rezoned the orchard north of Kennedy Road for residential and commercial development, but did so in a way that allowed the present lessee to stay there through the conclusion of their contract at the end of 2020.

The 300-plus-acre parcel north of Kennedy Road will be split up, with about 200 acres of residentially zoned property auctioned off, and DNR retaining 55 acres for commercial development.

These pragmatic investments honor the intentions of Congress from 130 years ago to support Washington state and support the economic livelihood of its residents.

As the Tri-Cities continue to take off, we have unique opportunities to support economic growth across the region. Open minds and creative solutions like these allow our public lands to best serve their communities while supporting critical services.

Hilary Franz is the Commissioner of Public Lands, the elected official who oversees the Washington State Department of Natural Resources.