Land use plan draws fire

Property owners unhappy with Columbia River Gorge Commission review

Two Gorge landowners who have run up against Scenic Area roadblocks are discouraged with the current review of the Columbia River Gorge Commission’s land-use plan.

Norman Haight of Stevenson, Wash., and Casey Hueker of Dodson both attended recent meetings of the Scenic Resources Committee, an advisory group made up of Gorge Commissioners and staffers, and believe that any changes to the plan will only make it more onerous for property owners.

“These meetings seem to be designed to legalize a hidden agenda,” said Haight, who after six years of fighting Scenic Area regulations was forced to go back to square one on his building application.

Haight presented testimony about his land-use problems at the March hearing of an Oregon legislative oversight hearing. A tearful Hueker also gave an oral presentation about the fight her family has faced to rebuild their home which burned down more than 18 months ago. She also plans to present written comments for the official record at the Sept. 9 hearing which is scheduled to take place from 2 to 8 p.m. at the Hood River Inn — unless a fifth special legislative session to balance the state budget conflicts with that date.

Gorge Reality, a property rights watchdog group, said the outcome of the plan review has been very predictable — and that is the reason they submitted 915 letters to the Commission in the fall of 2000 asking that it be done by an independent party.

“This Commission is incapable of objectively reviewing itself because of its cozy affiliation with Friends of the Columbia Gorge,” said Janis Sauter, vice-chair of the Lyle-based organization.

However, in spite of these allegations, there appears to be disagreement over some resource protection issues between Friends and the Gorge Commission.

Martha Bennett, Gorge Commission executive director, acknowledges that, in some cases, the scenic guidelines have “taken on a life of their own” and been far more restrictive than necessary.

“A lot of the time we could solve the problem by not following a strict letter of the law,” said Bennett.

Michael Lang, Friends conservation director, said that strict adherence to the management plan is essential to fulfill the federal legislation that mandates the protection of scenic, cultural, natural and recreational resources. He said since the Scenic Act became law almost 16 years ago, there have been 600 new homes and 200 land divisions alone, not including accessory structures.

“Friends’ concern has been that the Gorge Commission has not really assessed whether the plan is working and if development is altering landscapes,” said Lang.

He said there is no “protectionist agenda” at work, simply an effort on the part of his organization to fulfill the primary purpose of the Scenic Act.

But Gorge Commissioner Ken Adcock, appointed from Klickitat County, Wash., believes the move to further hinder development of private property was evident in the July meeting of the subcommittee that was formed to review the Scenic Resources chapter. He said a Friends working group was allowed to give a one-hour presentation calling for stronger resource protection — in spite of the fact that the plan review is already lagging behind schedule in an effort to address more than 1,600 catalogued public comments already on record.

Under the National Scenic Area Act, the Gorge Commission is required to review the management plan, which was adopted in 1991, at least once every 10 years to determine if it should be revised. The plan, which was developed in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, placed 90 percent of the Scenic Area under special resource protection guidelines.

The Port of Hood River is questioning why the Gorge Commission is now seeking to extend its regulatory reach along the shorelines of the Columbia River and even onto the bridge over it.

“This is suppose to be about ‘land-use’ isn’t it?” asked Dave Harlan, port director.

Both Haight and Hueker believe that, while some of the scenic protection may sound good on paper, they create a regulatory “nightmare” for landowners when enacted on the ground.

For example, Casey and her husband, Tim, have been fighting for more than 18 months to replace their 61-year-old home that was destroyed by fire and is within sight of three KVAs; Beacon Rock, the Columbia River and Washington State Route 14. After spending more than $20,000 in legal fees, the family, which includes three small children and a baby on the way, has been granted a building permit for a two-bedroom replacement home on their six acre property. However, they are afraid to build because they cannot reach a settlement with Friends over how much landscaping is necessary to hide the house.

Lang said because the environmental watchdog group has been “sympathetic” to the plight of the Huekers it chose not to protest the “significant” changes in the height of the new house plans.

However, Casey said Friends is challenging Multnomah County’s approved list of vegetation and wants them to spend about $35,000 for several species of mature trees. To even gain the building permit, she said the family had to agree never to add more rooms or even a garage.

Bennett said the Hueker case has pointed out a flaw in the management plan that needs to be remedied during plan review. She said there are currently no landscaping standards in place for a replacement dwelling.

“We need to recognize that people who are in the same situation as the Huekers are not trying to get into their dream house, they’re just trying to get back into their home,” she said.

Haight wanted a land division that would place three houses in naturalized settings on 61 acres he owns with his brother at the western end of Skamania County, Wash. His plan was to leave 75 percent of the acreage permanently restricted from development. However, since the property was located four miles away from the Crown Point KVA, which lies across the Columbia River, Haight immediately began to encounter “visual subordinance” challenges. Unlike the Huekers, he decided to do his own paperwork and take on the attorneys from the Gorge Commission and Friends as an ordinary citizen.

Years passed and the stacks of correspondence grew before Haight decided to abandoned his original plan after refusing to agree with a suggestion that he build partway down a northern slope that was completely shaded for six months out of the year. Someday Haight hopes “common sense” will prevail in the Gorge and other landowners will be spared from burdensome regulations just to retain some development rights to their property.

“I hope that my example shows what this process does to people,” he said. Sauter joins Haight and Hueker in the belief that legislators hold the key to restoring balance and fairness to property owners in the Scenic Area. Her organization has submitted a petition signed by more than 5,000 citizens asking for a federal review to also address problems on lands regulated by the Forest Service. U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., has agreed to grant that request although no date for that hearing has been set.

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