Gorge commission must accelerate plan review

Friday, March 21, 2003
By KATHIE DURBIN, Columbian staff writer

Facing shaky funding over the next two years, the Columbia River Gorge Commission will speed review of the Gorge National Scenic Area Management plan with an eye to getting the most important work done by June 30.

The commission is funded equally by the Washington and Oregon legislatures. It has requested about $750,000 from each state to operate in the 2003-05 biennium. But both states face deep budget deficits. Oregon lawmakers have already signaled that they may slash the bi-state panel's budget by 30 percent or more.

"We don't expect to get through the budget process in either state without cuts," said Martha Bennett, the commission's executive director. Even a 6 percent budget cut would make it impossible to complete the commission's ambitious plan review on schedule, she said.

The Oregon Legislature also is considering cutting state grants that help planners implement gorge rules in the three Oregon counties within the scenic area, Bennett said.

If that happens, those counties will have to decide whether to continue implementing the gorge plan or turn that task back to the gorge commission, she said.

Planning grants safe so far

So far, planning grants to Clark and Skamania counties on the Washington side of the gorge are not on the chopping block in Olympia, she said. Clark County receives $20,000; Skamania County, which has large blocks of private land in the scenic area, gets $190,000.

Because Klickitat County has refused to implement the gorge plan, the commission receives $40,000 annually to administer the plan in the portion of the scenic area that lies within that county.

The commission, which is required by law to review the 1992 plan and submit proposed amendments to the U.S. secretary of Agriculture, has spent most of the past 18 months working with its staff on a detailed review of the complicated rulebook for development in the gorge.

Under its current schedule, it would not complete the process until sometime in 2004.

But under a "triage plan" the commission will consider in a special meeting Tuesday, it will try to complete the most critical tasks about 40 percent of the total work by June 30, the end of this fiscal year. The meeting begins at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the Rock Creek Center in Stevenson, and public comment will be accepted.

"It is important to use the rest of this biennium as efficiently as possible, given the grave financial situation in both Oregon and Washington," Bennett said.

Some tasks shouldn't wait because they cause ongoing headaches for planners and property owners, Bennett said. "There are things in the management plan that need to be amended now for the plan to work properly in the future."

Those include amending standards for protecting scenery in the gorge, an issue that drives most of the appeals the commission receives; clarifying what constitutes "repair and maintenance" of a building as opposed to "new development"; and specifying what kinds of public works projects may go forward without a permit.

Also on the must-do list are issues that affect individual property owners, Bennett said.

For instance, members of a family commercial fishing business in Warrendale, Ore., want the plan changed to allow them to clean fish in the river as sports fishermen do. Gorge rules currently prohibit such "commercial activity."

And a vineyard owner near Dallesport who makes wine on his property wants the plan changed so he can open a tasting room and retail outlet, also prohibited under current rules.

Zoning issues on hold

The triage plan will put off until a later date a reconsideration of whether owners of agriculturally zoned property in the gorge should have to meet a farm income test before they can build a new house on their land. That rule has been particularly contentious in eastern Clark County, where some landowners say their land is not suitable for farming and that the income test is unreasonable.

Also scheduled to be shelved for now are changes in recreational development plans and in zoning rules that restrict where churches and schools may be located.

Bennett said the work that planners have invested in these issues won't go to waste. The commission might be able to deal with some of them less formally, she said. Others could wait until the next plan review starts in five to 10 years.

With the abbreviated schedule, the commission should be able to complete its plan review by fall, Bennett said a year earlier than expected. "That's what happens when you cut 60 percent of your workload," she quipped.

She plans to shift some resources to work more closely with the counties and to revamp enforcement of existing gorge rules.

"The counties are facing revenue cutbacks, too," she said.

"With limited resources, we have to shift our priorities. We need to make sure we have cleared the decks."


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