Land fight brewing in Lyle, WA

Saturday, July 12, 2003
By KATHIE DURBIN, Columbian staff writer

Not many would rate tiny Lyle, population 530, as one of the state's development hot spots.

Located along an ancient Indian trading route, it began as a sheep and wool shipping center and remained isolated until 1933, when tunnels connected it with the rest of the Columbia River Gorge. Today, with a single grocery store, a hotel, two bars and a cafe, it's a scenic pit stop for windsurfers, hikers and others who come to the gorge to play.

But this unincorporated community could soon become the focus of a showdown between Klickitat County commissioners and the Columbia River Gorge Commission.

In a politically charged move, county commissioners have hired a Portland lawyer and a Lake Oswego, Ore., development consultant to make the case that Lyle needs more room to accommodate future growth. By summer's end, they plan to petition the gorge commission to expand Lyle's urban growth boundary, allowing development in areas where it is now off-limits or sharply restricted.

The request for an urban growth boundary expansion will be the first of its kind to come before the gorge commission, said longtime gorge planner Allen Bell.

The move is not motivated by any evidence that Lyle is growing and about to run out of land.

Instead, it's fueled by the purchase of a 35-acre riverfront property in Lyle by the Trust for Public Land. The trust's purchase took away the potential that the land will ever sprout houses.

"Lyle is at risk of losing its tax base," said Klickitat County Commissioner Joan Frey. "The Trust for Public Land is not concerned with the economic well-being of the community. My guess is that they are going to be diligent in trying to get it off the tax rolls."

"Nothing could be further from the truth," said Chris Beck, the trust's project manager for Lyle Point. The trust wants the scenic point to become a community asset and has even offered to build a children's playground there, he said.

Options for expansion of the Lyle urban area will be aired and the community's views sought at a July 28 meeting of the Lyle Community Council. Jill Long, a Portland attorney with the firm Foster Pepper & Shefelman, will lead the meeting, along with development consultant Todd Chase of OTAK and Klickitat County planner Curt Dreyer.

Topography and the Columbia River limit Lyle's growth options. About the only way it can expand is to the north. But property north of Lyle is visible from key viewpoints in Oregon, including the Historic Columbia River Highway. That means that under current zoning, development would have to be "visually subordinate" to its surroundings.

If it were part of Lyle's urban area, however, it could be developed for residential, commercial or industrial use with no special restrictions beyond those in the county zoning code.

The county will wait to hear from Lyle residents and its consultants before deciding how large an expansion to request, Dreyer said.

A controversial purchase

The county is expected to argue that Lyle suffered a severe loss in 2000, when the trust bought Lyle Point from a developer, paying nearly $1.9 million to protect the scenic shoreline property from development.

At the time of the sale, utilities had been installed for a 33-lot subdivision. Klickitat Landing was to be an upscale residential neighborhood with tennis courts, a sailboard launch and riverfront views that developers believed could command prices of $70,000 to $280,000 per lot.

But the lots failed to sell after a federal magistrate ordered the developer to provide Columbia River tribal fishermen with access to a traditional fishing site on the river at Lyle Point. That reduced the size of the development to 31 lots.

After the nonprofit trust bought the property, the county successfully challenged its tax-exempt status before the state Board of Tax Appeals. The trust appealed the ruling, lost in Klickitat County Superior Court and is now paying $20,000 a year in property taxes to the county.

County officials say the loss of Lyle Point reduced Lyle's taxable land base by 30 percent and deprived the county of a potential $120,000 in annual tax revenue, a figure the trust disputes.

The trust hoped to sell the land for a public park, but those hopes dimmed when county commissioners passed an ordinance making it illegal for anyone to establish a new public park in Lyle without the commissioners' express permission.

Last year Beck offered Klickitat County a one-time payment of $55,000 to set up an interest-bearing trust fund that could be used to help support Lyle-area schools and local services. Beck also offered to build a children's playground at Lyle Point. In exchange, he asked the commission to repeal the ordinance.

The county has shown no interest in the offer.

Beck noted that the property could still leave the tax rolls if the trust sells it to the state, the federal government or a tribe. As a last resort, the trust could even decide to develop the land itself, though he stressed that is not its intent.

"If Lyle Point could be developed as a public space, it would have significantly more benefit to the community than 31 homes," Beck said. "There are interpretive opportunities, opportunities for a small museum and a day use facility."

That's not commissioner Frey's vision. If the county can't get Klickitat Landing back, she's like to see Lyle's urban growth boundary expanded acre-for-acre to make up for the loss of the 35 acres at Lyle Point. "I'd love to get the land back," she said.

"Frankly, we need to be compensated for the 33 lots that were lost at Lyle Point," said Oren Johnson, a third-generation Lyle resident who owns 138 acres there. "They need to give back to us the home sites we lost."

He added that Lyle's current north boundary has created headaches for him personally, because it bisects a 22-acre parcel he has been unable to develop.

"We never talked about acre-for-acre, but what's happened at Lyle Point has changed the viability of that urban area," said Jill Long, the lawyer the county is paying to make the case for the boundary change.

Long's case could be hard to make.

Congress set a high bar for expanding the boundaries of urban areas when it established the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area in 1986. The act specifies that the commission may revise urban area boundaries only if it finds that (a) a "demonstrable need" exists to accommodate long-range population growth or economic development; (b) the new boundaries are consistent with the act's purposes; (c) the change would result in maximum efficiency of land uses within and on the fringe of existing urban areas; and (d) the change would not result in a significant reduction of farm land, forest land or open space.

Two-thirds of the gorge commissioners, including a majority from each state, must vote in favor to approve urban growth boundary changes.

Whether the county can show that Lyle has a "demonstrable need" for more land is an open question.

"We would be surprised if Lyle could meet the urban area boundary change standards in the National Scenic Area Act," said Michael Lang, conservation director of the watchdog group Friends of the Columbia Gorge.

"It's really going to be up to them to submit documentation" of growth projections, said Bell, who met with county officials and their consultants several months ago. "They'll need to look at how much vacant land there is in the urban area, what would be available for redevelopment, state data from the Office of Financial Administration."

No land rush

Real estate agent Bill Boehling said he has seen no growth spurt in the seven years he has been selling real estate in Lyle.

"There hasn't been a high demand," he said. "There is a very limited supply of lots here. But they don't go very fast. They move at the rate of several a year, less than a dozen."

In the mid-1990s, Boehling said, several windsurfers bought property in the Lyle area. More recently, 10 to 15 higher-end houses went up at the east end of town, most of them built by people who commute to jobs in The Dalles, Ore., a dozen miles east. But a 12-unit subdivision covering a full city block just north of Highway 14 has had no takers.

"There's not the amount of transient traffic there used to be, and there's not the growth," Boehling said. Most people who contemplate moving to Lyle don't want to live right in town anyway, he said; they're more interested in buying acreage and living in the country.

But Long said she believes the case can be made for a boundary expansion to accommodate future development.

"One thing we kept in mind is that these urban areas are a vital part of the scenic area," she said. To protect open space, all new commercial and industrial development in the scenic area is supposed to take place within its 13 urban areas.

"We decided to look at what the needs are overall and really plan for the next 20 to 30 years," Long said. "We will try to present current and future needs both. The focus is on residential, but that's not the only focus." The consultant may recommend adding land for residential development but rezoning land within the existing town for other uses, she said.

"I think we can meet the standards," Long said. " No one has ever truly done this process before."

Kathie Durbin covers the Columbia River Gorge for The Columbian. She can be reached at 360-759-8034, or


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