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A long look at the Scenic Act

Oregon legislators have proposed long-term monitoring of Columbia River Gorge Commission actions to ensure “fair and equitable” treatment of citizens.

And Martha Bennett, Commission executive director, said she welcomes that level of involvement. She also expressed enthusiasm about many of the other recommendations made by the Subcommittee on Columbia River Gorge Commission Review.

“I thought the findings were pretty fair and reflect some significant thought on the part of the subcommittee about where we are doing a good job and where we need to make changes,” said Bennett.

In their report, the bipartisan panel addressed 18 key facts that arose during both invited and public testimony at three formal hearings held this spring and fall in the Gorge.

“I thought all three hearings were excellent and very informative,” said Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett. “We now have great reasons to solve some of the most contentious issues facing the Gorge.”

The eight member group, which was co-chaired by Smith and Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, found “overwhelming” support among citizens for the protection objectives of the Scenic Area Act which became law in 1986. However, they also determined that the management practices of the Gorge Commission were strongly disputed by many landowners because they were applied unequally and without accountability.

To correct that problem, the subcommittee believes legislators should guide the Commission toward a better working relationship with Gorge residents. To accomplish that goal, the elected body from Oregon wants to invite officials from Washington State to join their peers in creation of a Bi-State Committee. That body would then be responsible to modify the joint compact as needed to re-direct the focus of the Commission and correct any existing inconsistencies in the application of laws from both states.

For example, there is no statutory definition for the term “visually subordinate” in the Scenic Area management plan, which the subcommittee contended has led to major conflicts between landowners and the Commission — and opened the door for “frivolous” appeals by third parties. The legislators also believes the six Gorge counties need to work with the Commission to develop a set of model land-use ordinances that will bring uniform application of standards.

Bennett said the Commission has already developed that model and once the six counties receive some technical training it will be easy to implement. She said the Commission is also addressing the visual subordinate issue, and other undefined terms, in its current review of the management plan so that legislative expectation should be fulfilled.

Oregon officials want the Commission’s operations streamlined and suggest the agency work within state land-use permit processing timelines. In addition, the legislators believe the Commission should tighten methodology which currently allows protracted appeals and litigation and utilize the services of an independent hearings officer through both state Justice Departments. The Commission is also being asked to undertake binding arbitration or some other sanctioned form of conflict resolution on disputed development cases.

Bennett will ask for further clarification on this issue since some of the timelines for cases are set by the court and others differ between the two states. She said the Commission currently settles about half of its contested cases outside the courtroom but the idea of the hearings officer or a neutral third party to oversee appeals is attractive — especially in Klickitat County, Wash., which has refused to implement a Scenic Area ordinance. Since the Commission processes the development applications for that county, Bennett said it is placed in the role to decide whether land uses should be permitted and then act as the appellant body to overturn or uphold that decision.

The legislators also heard repeated requests at the hearings for more Commission funding to increase staff levels and efficiency. They determined the Bi-State Committee should have the duty to inform Congress and state legislators of specific needs for budgetary increases and Bennett said citizen activists could also play a key role in bringing the need for more revenue forward.

Bennett saw one problem in the findings that she also believes could be remedied by a strong showing from local governments and residents. She said directives that the Commission develop economic development and tourism opportunities would sidetrack from its role to protect resources. Instead, she envisions the Commission working with Gorge stakeholders to assist agencies already charged with business recruitment and/or recreational planning.

“There are a lot of good agencies out there doing that and I think our role is to work with these folks in a support capacity,” said Bennett.

The subcommittee has also determined that the Commission needs to work more closely with Native American tribes for better protection of cultural and historic artifacts. Again, Bennett said this issue is being discussed during plan review.

Smith said the official report will be forwarded to both Oregon and Washington legislators for adoption and probable enactment. She anticipates that private property owners in the Scenic Area will benefit from the changes and will find the development process less costly and cumbersome.

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