Gorge panel adopts 'triage' strategy

By Nancy Lemons
of The Chronicle


The Columbia River Gorge Commission is struggling to decide what can and cannot be accomplished in the gorge management plan review before July 1, when budget cuts are expected to affect commission operations in the new fiscal year.
During public testimony last Tuesday, Friends of the Gorge suggested closing the review for now in light of financial constraints, but a Skamania County representative said early termination would waste the time and effort already invested.
Congress requires plan review at least every 10 years to determine the document meets the purposes of the 1986 Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Act to protect gorge resources and encourage economic development in designated urban areas.
Commission and Forest Service staffs recommended a short-term list of issues to cover by July 1, and a long-term list for the future. But, even with the “triage” approach, commission staff say the short-term list is ambitious.
“Triage” is a medical emergency room term, referring to the priorities assigned different patients when resources are in limited supply.
The first-ever gorge management plan review has been ongoing since May 2001, beginning with public outreach in which 1,600 comments were received from citizens and development planners regarding concerns and possible changes to the document. Early in the process, the commission adopted a scope of work for the review based on these comments. The commission is focusing on areas of the plan that may need to be revised for clarity, that were subject of litigation, or guidelines that have proven to be a headache to implement. The commission also needs to update parts of the plan, such as natural resource inventories, to reflect changes in state and national laws since the plan’s adoption.
Conservation Director Michael Lang of Friends of the Gorge said his organization believes the commission has fulfilled its statutory obligation to review the plan. He contended that revisions are not required under plan review, unless inconsistencies with the act are found.
At the least, Friends supported removing items from the ambitious short-term list and offered five criteria for evaluating whether to proceed with reviewing a topic.
“To our knowledge, the commission has not identified any provisions of the plan that are inconsistent with the act,” Lang said, reading from a memo addressed to the commission.
He said Friends opposed proceeding on plan review issues that address “narrow economic interests that benefits the few,” adding that rezoning specific properties or allowing commercial or industrial uses currently prohibited in the scenic act “do not further the purposes and standards” of the act and “are not in the public’s interest.”
Commissioner Kathy Sheehan questioned if that ignored the second goal of the scenic act in protecting and supporting economic development in a way that is consistent with the first goal of resource protection.
Lang offered that resource protection was the primary purpose and that economic development was secondary. He told the commission that Friends did not mind if the plan review helped economic development in the gorge, but said they don’t think the commission is mandated to provide economic development.
Commissioner Don Dunn said, “The management plan is not just reviewed for consistency.” The purpose of the review is to find provisions that are unfair or harsh on property owners, Dunn explained.
“I believe we found some of those...where we find limitations in the plan,” he said.
Skamania County Planning Director Karen Witherspoon said use of a short-term list is something her county could support, but added they believe both lists, short- and long-term, needed to be completed in the near future. She urged the commission to make use of Skamania County’s planning resources and staff expertise in the review, saying that their county planners are already spending resources to attend gorge commission meetings to listen to public comment. She said the planners should be working as true partner agencies and helping draft text and working on details along side commission and Forest Service staffs.
She said Skamania County did not support terminating the plan review and update, and to do so would be “wasting all the time and effort supplied by the commission, the Forest Service, the partner agencies and members of the public.”
“You have not met the public’s concerns in plan review,” she added.
Commission Executive Director Martha Bennett reported that most of the topics on the short-term list was between 50 and 95 percent completed. Four topics were removed from the short-term list, including cluster developments, temporary uses, home occupations and cottage industries in special management areas (SMA) and uses in the Columbia River. In the next three months, the commission will proceed with work on the short-term list, which includes broad categories of scenic resources, land use and natural resources.
The vote was split, 7 to 2, in favor of the adjusted short-term list. Commissioners Wayne Wooster and Sheehan, who voted no, were concerned about scenic resource topics left off the short-term list, especially cumulative impacts to scenic resources.
Area Forest Service Manager Dan Harkenrider said he didn’t know why the commission needed to agonize over the triage lists, saying that they would proceed with the work.
“There is life after July 1,” he said.
For more information, contact the gorge commission at (509) 493-3323 or visit www.gorgecommission.org

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In Other News...

Feb. 28, 2003

Committee eyes gorge commission changes
Oregon legislative subcommittee suggests overhaul of procedures

of The Dalles Chronicle

An Oregon legislative subcommittee offered 19 recommendations for changes in the way the state administers the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Act, including the creation of a standing oversight legislative committee.
Property-rights advocates, as well as conservationists, agree with a number of the recommendations. However, gorge property-rights groups say Oregon’s trying to fix “something that is terribly broken.” They want a major overhaul.
Conservation group, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, claims some of the recommendations add yet another level of bureauracy that Oregon can’t afford.
The Subcommittee on Columbia River Gorge Commission Review, under the Joint Interim Committee on Natural Resources, developed the findings and related recommendations from public testimony at three hearings in the gorge last year, beginning in the spring.
Subcommittee co-chair, Sen. Ted Ferrioli said there was “overwhelming” support for the scenic act, but residents, including some who support it, are critical of a “cumbersome” process and perceive it to be unfair.
Suggested changes in the findings and recommendations address such things as ensuring consistency in the development application process, litigation, the need for adequate funding and economic and recreational development, and setting benchmarks and collecting data to track the success of administering the scenic act.
The mandate of the federal scenic act is carried out through a bi-state compact agreement between Oregon and Washington states. In addition to creating a standing legislative oversight committee in Oregon, Ferrioli and fellow committee members would like to see a bi-state committee established to open the bi-state compact to address conflicting Oregon and Washington land use statutes. The bi-state committee would also be charged with developing a process for appeals to be heard by neutral third parties instead of the gorge commission; looking into streamlining the U.S. Forest Service’s federal land acquistions program and including general management area, as well as special management area, in the buyout; informing Congress and state legislatures of specific needs for increased funding and working with tribes and counties to develop better strategies for protecting Native American cultural and historic resources.
With Oregon’s economic problems, Ferrioli says he’s trying to keep gorge commission funding at its current level for now. The recommendations are not an emergency, but a long-term plan, he said.
“It takes a long time to make change in a system that has been set up for long-term benefit,” Ferrioli said.
Friends of the Gorge say they support some recommendations, such as compensation for land owners for stricter regulations and alternative dispute resolutions. But, Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends, says the Oregon lawmakers are missing the major question: Is the gorge commission fulfilling the purpose of the scenic act and is it providing economic development consistent with protection of all resources as mandated by Congress?
Lang said, “The jury’s still out on that one.”
Additionally, Friends sees establishment of the legislative oversight and bi-state committees as adding another level of bureautic red tape to the process of gorge protection.
Ferrioli introduced a bill, mainly aimed at Multnomah County, to require Oregon counties to stick with a deadline for land use decisions set by state statute — 150 days. Friends argues that federal scenic area law trumps state law. Lang said Friends is concerned the bill violates required provisions of the scenic act. Ferrioli said they’re trying to work something out, but he’s willing to let it be tested in the courts.
Three representatives from property-rights advocate groups — Bobbie Miller of Columbia Gorge United, Janis Sauter of Gorge Reality and Rita Swyers of Oregonians in Action, say the Oregon subcommittee’s findings and recommendations “would be helpful,” but they fear that Oregon keeps trying to fix something that is terribly broken.
They strongly support the recommendation to create a standing legislative oversight committee, but contend a flaw exists in the current structure of the county- and governor-appointed gorge commission. They would like to see an elected body that would answer directly to the voters.
They say they wonder why a gorge commission is needed and suggest that the oversight committee could use resources to hire its own staff to administer the scenic act.
Adding general management area land to the buyout program is something they oppose under the present structure, commenting it “would be a disaster.”
They contend many “willing sellers” in the past were not exactly willing, but their backs were against the wall.
The three groups say they are concerned with the amount of land taken off the tax rolls and how it will affect county incomes. They believe the federal government should replace the income and pay the counties for the loss in tax revenue beyond the eight years as laid out in the current federal land acquistion plan.
“The intent of this law is to preserve the beauty of the gorge for all of the people of the U.S. and should not be a financial burden to residents, the six counties and the two states where the gorge is located,” wrote representatives from the property-rights groups in response to the Oregon subcommittee’s recommendations.
The three goups worked together to conduct a survey of gorge property owners to create a record of past land use violations since implementation of the scenic act. They presented the information during the Oregon public hearings on the Columbia River Gorge Commission. They are pushing for an impartial agent to review and correct what they say are past violations of the law by the commission.
They see the ongoing gorge management plan review being conducted by the gorge commission as the “wolf watching the chicken coop.”
Washington State Sen. Jim Honeyford, who was present during some of the Oregon public hearings said he probably won’t introduce any legislation this session. But his future plans include working with the Oregon legislature to make changes to the bi-state compact to provide that land use decisions be appealed in the state where they originated.
Like property-rights advocates, Honeyford would like the gorge commission to be an elected body, representing people of their county. Ferrioli doesn’t support this idea and explained that people now have indirect influence through their elected county commission and state governors who appoint the gorge commissioners.
Gorge Commission Executive Director Martha Bennett said the subcommittee’s findings were “fair and well-reasoned.”
In speaking about using alternative dispute resolution, instead of hearings and litigation, Bennett said, “We’ve been tring to do that.” She added that 50 percent of the cases in the past year have been resolved.
“It doesn’t mean we will settle every time, but we’ll attempt before it ends up in a hearing,” she said.
Bennett said the scenic act distributed power widely to different agencies which is a strong network when it’s working well. She said there needs to be a greater recognition of the role other agencies play.
She says over time things have gotten better in applying gorge regulations of the management plan and the commission staff knows a lot more about how to work with county planners.


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