Future of the Gorge - Public to get say in review of scenic area rules

Monday, January 20, 2003

By KATHIE DURBIN, Columbian staff writer

Columbia River Gorge, WA - The public soon will have its say on a raft of proposed changes to the 1992 management plan that restricts development in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

And the future of the scenic area may ride on the outcome of the political tug of war surrounding revision of the gorge protection rule book.

Beginning Jan. 28 and continuing through next summer, the Columbia River Gorge Commission will hold staff briefings and public hearings on scores of proposed changes to the scenic area management plan, some minor and some far-reaching.

In the "minor" category are issues like whether to permit schools and churches in rural areas and whether to limit construction of sheds and garages on lots visible from key gorge viewpoints.

In the "far-reaching" category are proposals to relax overall standards for new development in the scenic area. Already, the commission has moved away from an existing rule that requires property owners to "minimize visibility" of new structures.

Gorge planners, working with the Forest Service and the six gorge counties, have developed the proposed changes during a congressionally mandated review of the 1992 plan. Their goal is to make scenic area rules fairer to property owners, easier for county planners to administer and more effective in protecting scenic vistas, open space and natural resources in the gorge.

"We are trying to streamline the process and address areas of overregulation wherever possible," said Martha Bennett, the commission's executive director. "Our goal is not to decrease resource protection as a result of that process."

But Michael Lang, conservation director of the watchdog group Friends of the Columbia Gorge, says reduced protection might result. "The management plan should certainly not be weakened," he said, "and what has been proposed so far has definitely weakened the standards."

High stakes

Bennett and the bistate gorge commission know that more than scenery is at stake in this process. They understand that the survival of the 292,615-acre scenic area may depend on addressing the legitimate concerns of those most affected by restrictions on development the 70,000 people who live in the gorge.

The Bea house ruling in Skamania County and a handful of other controversial decisions over the past five years have given the commission and its staff a reputation undeserved, they say for being stiff, unyielding and bureaucratic, of tying landowners in red tape and infringing on their property rights.

A legislative oversight committee headed by Oregon state Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, offered a forum for those views in a series of hearings last year. In December, Ferrioli's committee concluded that residents of the Mid-Columbia region in both states "overwhelmingly support the objectives" of the scenic area, including protection of cultural and scenic resources. But the committee said gorge residents are less supportive of the commission and its staff "because of perceived issues of fairness," including the way appeals are handled and rules applied.

Ferrioli has made it clear he expects those issues to be addressed. He has proposed creating a joint committee with Washington lawmakers to consider changes to the bistate compact under which the states fund the commission.

Because the commission's operations are funded by the Washington and Oregon legislatures, the states also control the agency's purse strings and can make it next to impossible for the staff of eight to do its job.

Bennett says the implied threat doesn't faze her. "I don't think the priorities of the legislators are that far way from those the commission itself has identified."

Gorge counties now work more closely with the gorge commission to enforce scenic area rules than in the past. Yet property rights groups continue to assail the commission.

In December, three of those groups Gorge Reality, Columbia Gorge United and Oregonians in Action presented the commission with results of an unscientific poll designed to "create a record of property rights violations" in the scenic area. Of 5,500 surveys mailed, 235 were returned completed a return rate of less than 5 percent. Of those, 218 people said their property rights had been violated.

Pat Sims of Portland, a longtime supporter of the scenic area, says the low return shows the overwhelming majority of gorge residents support the commission. "Over the past couple years I have seen this commission bend over backwards to attempt to satisfy this property rights contingent," she said the commission's Jan. 14 meeting. "The staff and the commission spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to appease a group of people who seem not appeasable."

No compromise

Pushing from the other side is Friends of the Gorge, which is wary of any changes that might dilute protection for gorge scenery. Friends has the resources to review every development permit application and to appeal decisions of the counties and the gorge commission.

Conservation director Lang says a major revamping of the management plan is premature until the commission has a clearer picture of how development has affected the scenic area to date.

About 1,000 buildings have been built in the scenic area since it was established in 1986. The commission should identify areas where that development has marred scenic views and hold those areas to a higher standard, Lang said.

Gorge Commission Chair Anne Squier agrees that analyzing the cumulative impact of development would be useful, but she says the commission lacks the tools to do that.

"It's clear we don't have as much baseline information as we need," Squier said. "We do have to grapple with cumulative impact. It keeps coming up with each of the policy decisions we make."

Haunted by the past

Gail Castle, the Lyle widow who sought to replace her dilapidated farmhouse but was thwarted by rigid gorge commission rules, has become a legendary figure to private property rights advocates in the gorge.

After a torrent of negative publicity, the commission directed its staff to use discretion read "common sense" in deciding such cases. Castle eventually got to build her new house. But in the wake of that political controversy, and another involving Tim and Casey Heuker's new house in Warrendale, Ore., the commission is considering relaxing its standards for replacement dwellings.

Some proposed changes recognize that protecting scenery can conflict with other legitimate goals. For instance, requiring homeowners to plant trees near their houses to screen them from view could increase the risk that their houses will be destroyed by wildfire. The commission will consider language that clearly puts fire prevention first.

It will also consider a more common-sense approach to permitting road and utility work in the scenic area.

A committee considering changes to scenic protection rules has proposed dropping a requirement that property owners "minimize visibility" of new developments that can be seen from about two dozen viewpoints, including highways and major roadways, scenic viewpoints and the river itself.

Until recently, that language was interpreted to mean a new house must be sited on the lot's least visible building site, no matter how undesirable. The commission overturned that interpretation in a Skamania County case, saying new houses need not be hidden away.

Committee members say the language amounted to regulatory overkill.

Lang strenuously disagrees.

"In its own 1998 monitoring report, the gorge commission said that requiring siting of new development to minimize visibility was the most valuable tool they had," Lang said. "Now the staff has flip-flopped on that. What happened? We believe political pressure happened."

Friends also opposes changes that would lessen scenic protection in the immediate foreground of key viewpoints and along roadways and utility corridors.

Some of the changes the commission is considering would address land use questions that simply did not occur to drafters of the current management plan:

* Should proprietors of bed and breakfast inns be allowed to rent out their establishments for weddings?

* Should vineyard owners be able to operate wine-tasting rooms on their farms?

* Should property owners who want to add a bedroom, deck or fence have to go through the same lengthy application process as those who want to build a house? Responding to that issue, the staff is proposing a new expedited three-week review.

Pushing deadlines

At its present pace, the commission hopes to deliver a revised scenic area management plan to the U.S. secretary of agriculture by mid-2004. Bennett admits that's optimistic.

On her recommendation, the commission decided not to do a cursory review but to invite broad public involvement, identify key issues and analyze where the plan was working and where it was not.

The process has taken far longer than expected and has frequently threatened to bog down in detail. Plan review currently consumes 40 percent of the staff's time. Public hearings and special meetings will keep the unpaid commissioners busy for the next six months at least.

Bennett says it's work the commission needed to do.

"There are a lot of expectations related to problems that need to be fixed in the plan. A lot of issues got deferred to plan review. I don't know how we could have successful plan review if we did not meet those expectations. "

But while plan review goes on, planners must also stay on top of new permit applications.

Lang says that's not happening.

"The gorge commission is not enforcing the current management plan," he said. "They are not even reviewing land divisions that are proposed in the counties. There is very little oversight of land use going on. Instead, they are concentrating on revising the scenic area management plan in ways that would weaken protection at the same time they are weakening enforcement of current rules."

Bennett denies that the goal of plan review is to water down protection. But she expects the public to ask for changes that would do just that. "The commission will be asked to make some hard choices," she said.

Commissioner Joyce Reinig of Hood River County has served on the panel from the beginning. She believes plan review is the best chance critics have to see their concerns addressed.

In a way, she says, the commission is still living down its early history.

"What the commission has done has changed over time based on changing interpretations of the act and the management plan under five different executive directors," she said at the commission's December meeting. "There were people who were very committed but very zealous, and in their zeal they forgot about the people who live in the gorge. We can't change the past. What I'm seeing now is that we have an executive director who wants to make this work."

Grappling over the gorge

"We are trying to streamline the process and address areas of over-regulation wherever possible. Our goal is not to decrease resource protection as a result of that process."

Martha Bennett, Columbia River Gorge Commission

"The management plan should certainly not be weakened, and what has been proposed so far has definitely weakened the standards."

Michael Lang, Friends of the Columbia Gorge

"You do feel lucky you have it, and you don't want to take advantage of it, but you don't want it taken away either."

Casey Heuker, on her view of the gorge

Gorge Commission Hearings

The Columbia River Gorge Commission will hold a series of briefings and hearings on proposed changes to the scenic area management plan. Most locations are not yet available; this schedule is subject to change.

Jan. 28, Rock Creek Center, Stevenson: Public hearing on 14 proposed changes to land use rules, including limitations on "accessory structures," expedited review of minor projects and lot line adjustments.

Feb. 11, Rock Creek Center, Stevenson: Discussion and adoption of changes to land use rules. Commission reviews proposed change to income test requirement for new dwellings on agricultural land.

March 11: Briefing on 15 proposed changes to land use rules covering commercial events at bed and breakfast inns, outfitter guides and tours, commercial uses of historic buildings, fish-processing facilities, siting of schools and places of worship, cluster developments, outdated subdivisions, replacement of existing structures, discontinued uses, temporary uses, and wineries on land zoned for residential use.

March 25: Commission receives report on proposals to eliminate the "minimize visibility" requirement, expand exterior paint color requirement to all scenic area lands, relax standard for developments in foreground of key viewpoints, and use siting as the most effective way to achieve "visual subordinance," with use of dark house colors and nonreflective glass and roofing materials as secondary strategies, and use of landscaping as a last resort.

April 8: Commission holds public hearing on second batch of land use proposals.

April 22: Commission holds public hearing on proposed changes to scenic protection standards.

May 13: Commission discusses and adopts changes to scenic protection standards. Commission considers additional land use issues, including suggestions for rezoning some areas.

June 10: Commission considers revising guidelines for recreation uses and recreation sites.


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