Housing in Cowlitz County: An interview with Long Range Planner George Winn

Nick Fazio (interviewer) and George Winn (interviewee)

Headshot of George Winn

Summary: A former long-range planner sits down with his successor to talk about the County’s approach to Housing Action in the COVID era. Take a peek behind the planning curtain and hear the personal story of a planner’s relationship to his work.

From 2016-2019 I worked as a planner in Cowlitz County’s newly formed long-range planning program. I connected virtually with one of my successors, George Winn, to take stock of the moment and find out how things are going.


You and I have both worked as long-range planners in Cowlitz County, though under two very different sets of circumstances. When I was there, the program was still new, and we weren’t facing a once-in-a-generation global pandemic. Now, the program is more established and of course, the United States just passed a grim milestone of more than half a million COVID deaths. Tell me, what’s it like to be a planner in Cowlitz County right now?

People are excited! They’re excited to do planning right now because they’re thinking of the future. The public isn’t dwelling on the challenging things that are happening right now; they’re planning for that new garage or the new historic preservation effort or helping their neighbor on a forward-thinking program. The challenge we’re facing here is doing the outreach with many of our residents. This is an aging community, so trying to get the public’s input on all the plans, like the housing action plan or a zoning or comprehensive plan change, has been difficult. Many of our most engaged residents are older, and live in rural areas, so doing robust outreach through Zoom has been a challenge, especially to get as much input as we need. But it is an exciting time to be a planner because people are looking forward to what is next for their community, and not focused on the closed schools or dreary weather or COVID deaths.

As you noted, Cowlitz County is working on a Housing Action Plan, which is something many of our readers have experience with, and many may even be working on their own. How is that going?

It’s going well so far! We have presented at four different community meetings, done interviews with 11 local professionals, and have gotten dozens of survey responses. The community is definitely excited about coming up with ways to increase the variety and quantity of housing. Across the board, developers, realtors, elected officials, and community members are showing genuine interest in adjusting the development code and zoning maps to encourage more housing. The County is also looking at addressing pesky internal procedures that can add time to the development process. We released a draft needs assessment in early January, and the overall result is that we desperately need more housing. The county’s population is aging, and people here are having fewer kids. Of the people that are struggling with housing here, the majority are single-person households who are elderly. We’re talking about our grandmothers on social security, living in an RV or alone on a rural lot. That is what poverty looks like here, so getting that population housed is high priority according to the public outreach we’ve done.

What makes Cowlitz County’s approach unique?

Cowlitz County has one of least restrictive ADU codes in the state. Our code provides so much opportunity for property owners to house extended family members and create extra income. We want to build off that and adjust the permitted uses in urban areas to increase gentle density. In areas with adequate infrastructure, maybe that means allowing something denser than duplexes. We’re hearing that the cost to install a septic system and drill a well in rural parts of the county is anywhere from $20,000 to $40,000. That is a huge amount of cost being added to a development. Our aging grandmother most likely doesn’t want two acres of land, five miles up a mountain road with a well and septic tank anyway. Finding smaller areas closer to town where we can build new homes is a high priority. Another thing we’re doing is looking at the language we use. We want to encourage housing, neighborhoods, and communities, instead of duplexes, subdivisions, and urban areas. Practically speaking, they mean the same thing, but phrasing it differently sends a message that is easier for the public to get behind.

What are some of the challenges you’re running into?

The north end of the county is only a 50-minute drive from Olympia, and the southern end is only 20 minutes from Vancouver and Portland, so Cowlitz County is in a spot where development pressure is coming from both ends. Commuters with increased incomes are pricing out local renters by creating rental bidding wars. Property taxes for grandma are going up because new transplants are building big houses.

We also have 1,600 RV spaces in our county that provide a huge amount of affordable housing. Most RV parks do not plan to expand, and not many news ones are planned to be built. But in Cowlitz County, we have a lot of people staying in those RV parks permanently. Whether they’re in an RV by choice or not, most of these people are only one step away from leaving the county for greener pastures, so prioritizing those people by encouraging affordable housing that is safer and more permanent is essential.

I know you spent some time in Guinea while you served in the Peace Corps. How has your experience in West Africa influenced the work you’re doing today?

In Guinean culture, listening to the elders in the room is expected. Here, back in Cowlitz County, I’m trying to do the same thing. I grew up here and can recall things from my youth, like the flood of 1996, but working with the most experienced senior members in our community is adding a lot of value to efforts like the Housing Action Plan or Historic Preservation Program.

What are you most looking forward to in the next year?

As a resident of Longview, I’m involved in their Active Transportation Advisory Committee. We get together to talk about how to make biking and walking improvements in Longview, the largest city in Cowlitz County. I love that, much like the County’s Historic Preservation Program, we’re just a group of eight people who are excited about something in our community and want to move forward with incremental solutions as a positive step. I like biking, so this summer I’m hoping to bike across the state on the John Wayne Pioneer Trail from North Bend to the Idaho border. Maybe I’ll do two days before my knee gives out, or maybe I’ll do the whole thing. Either way, I won’t be stuck inside. 

George Winn is a long-range planner in Cowlitz County, and can be reached by email at [email protected]. If you haven’t connected with George yet you totally should, because he is like, way cool.