The Port of Hood River is protesting a move by staffers of the Columbia River Gorge Commission to list its tollbridge on the roster of highly visible landscapes within the National Scenic Area.
“I just can’t understand how an agency that has such a public relations’ problem continues to trip over its own feet,” said Dave Harlan, port director.
However, Brian Litt, Gorge Commission senior planner, said only a “preliminary” recommendation had been made to include the Hood River Bridge, Bridge of the Gods in Cascade Locks and The Dalles crossing on the Key Viewing Area (KVA) list. He said no final decisions had yet been reached by the Scenic Resources Committee, an advisory group to the Gorge Commission formed to assist with the current review of the Scenic Area land-use management plan. He said the proposal to include the bridges as KVAs followed numerous public inquiries asking for resolution since the structures provided significant viewsheds for vehicle passengers.
Harlan said the port received only two working days’ notice that the bridges were even under consideration as KVAs. He said no support documents for that proposal were made available and no study was done about how operations might be affected.
“It is totally unclear how they arrived at putting our bridge on their list,” said Harlan.
His remarks were echoed by Joyce Reinig, Hood River County’s appointed Gorge Commissioner and a member of the Scenic Resources Committee. Reinig, who is the senior Commissioner with almost 16 years of experience, said the original intent of KVAs was to preserve viewpoints, travelways, parks and other areas where the public could walk around and safely enjoy the scenic beauty of the Gorge. Both she and Harlan said allowing that type of movement on bridges would create liability problems for the Gorge Commission.
“As an emergency room nurse I think it is almost appalling that anyone would even suggest a safety risk like this,” said Reinig.
She plans to register strong opposition when the issue is again raised at the Aug. 20 meeting of the Scenic Resources Committee at 2 p.m. in the White Salmon Library.
“We don’t want to make any of these decisions without a lot of dialogue between partnership agencies,” said Litt.
Some of that dialogue will also occur during the Hood River Port Commission’s Tuesday meeting at 7 p.m. in the Expo Center conference room. Litt plans to attend and field questions about the issue.
“Bridges are kind of unique because there is no safe place to stop and pull over and we’re not recommending people take that action,” he said.
But Reinig and Ken Adcock, the Gorge Commissioner representing Klickitat County, Wash., believe there may be a darker agenda at work.
“This is an attempt to stop development that has been taken to an extreme by special interest groups,” said Reinig.
She and Adcock contend that if the bridges are included as KVAs then development on private properties outside of urban centers could be more easily challenged. Under the management plan, new buildings within sight of KVAs are subject to stricter design measures that include heavier screening by vegetation and limitations on colors and external building materials. The Commission and Friends of the Columbia Gorge, a Portland-based environmental group, have been accused by some Scenic Area landowners of engineering such severe restrictions that they almost necessitate “invisibility.”
Adcock said the protectionist agenda became evident during Tuesday’s Scenic Resources Committee meeting when a working group put together by Friends was allowed to give a one-hour presentation. He was in attendance at that meeting and strongly protested the comments registered by Jurgen Hess, head of the Columbia Gorge Institute, and representatives from the Oregon Chapter of American Society of Landscape Architects and University of Oregon Landscape Architecture Department.
Adcock challenged the fact that the groups, which upheld Friends’ recommendation for expansion of the KVA list, was given that large segment of time when the Committee had been set up to address more than 1,600 catalogued comments that had already been registered through a serious of public meetings last year.
“This was clearly a special interest group that came in at the 11th hour and yet they were given special accommodation,” Adcock said.
Hess, former planner for the U.S. Forest Service, said three groups had come forward with an offer to study the “cumulative” effect of development on the nationally important landscape even if visual subordination standards were met on individual projects.
“We feel it’s very important to do this now – it’s not too late,” said Hess.
Litt said the invited speakers had been asked to provide follow-up information from their first visit to the Committee in June. He said other presentations have been made over different aspects of resource protection.
But Adcock questioned the necessity of that time expenditure when the plan review is already lagging behind schedule.
“I think we so far have made very pathetic progress and Tuesday’s meeting was a good example,” said Adcock.
He said the entire process is already under a bureaucratic overload since Gorge Commissioners are serving on the review committees and will then have to debate the findings as a full body.
“I think it would just have been a lot easier if the Commission had rolled up its sleeves and made the decisions as we went along,” said Adcock.
Reinig said that even if the Scenic Resources Committee decides to support listing the bridges as KVAs, the current Gorge Commission is the most balanced group to date and she believes reason will prevail.
“I have a lot of faith in this Commission’s decision-making abilities, they’re a pretty pragmatic group and they will make the right decision,” Reinig said.