A new citizens group believes the Columbia River Gorge Commission is on shaky ground when it comes to administering land-use law.
Last week, the Coalition of Concerned Citizens mailed out a survey to more than 5,800 property holders within the National Scenic Area. That questionnaire asks if these individuals have sustained economic losses or downzoning as a result of actions taken by the bi-state entity.
“The Scenic Act has been in place for almost 16 years and it’s time we found out the true scope of how it has affected people’s property rights,” said Rita Swyers, a Hood River resident who serves as the coalition chair.
Swyers said the results of the survey will be turned in to a panel of Oregon legislators when these officials convene for the second Gorge Commission oversight hearing at 2 p.m. on June 26 in the Columbia Room of the Hood River Inn.
Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, said the eight-member Subcommittee on Columbia River Gorge Commission Review will gladly enter the new data into the formal record.
“What a wonderful outreach effort, I just absolutely have to believe that the more people who participate in the survey the more helpful information we’ll be provided with,” he said.
Martha Bennett, executive director of the Gorge Commission, said the bi-state agency is also “welcoming” comments from Scenic Area landowners about how it can provide better customer service.
“We’re certainly very interested in the results of the survey, I’ve never heard anyone raise an issue that didn’t have some basis in reality,” she said.
However, Bennett said it will be difficult for questions about economic and property right losses to be weighed accurately without an indepth study of all contributing factors at the local, state and federal levels.
“I think we’ll get some good and interesting anecdotal information but it doesn’t do away with the need someday to have a comprehensive study of the Scenic Act,” Bennett said.
Swyers, who is also vice-president of Oregonians in Action, a statewide property rights watchdog group, began working last year to compile the addresses of Scenic Area landowners. However, she quickly discovered that there was no master list available so she enlisted the help of two representatives from local property rights groups: Janis Sauter, vice-chair of Gorge Reality, and Bobbie Miller, president of Columbia Gorge United.
Both Sauter and Miller join Swyers in the belief that although supporters of the Scenic Act claim that it has achieved its protection purposes, a large number of unhappy citizens are struggling under a regulatory burden they say has devalued their property.
“I think it’s important for people to understand that if a government agency can take away the use of their neighbor’s property it can take away their use also,” said Swyers.
The new partnership gave birth to the coalition which is funded by private dollars and manned by volunteer labor. The trio of women have spent months visiting each of the six Gorge counties to obtained deed records that have been consolidated into one document. To date, Swyers said about 250 of the posted surveys have been returned and any copies that do not make it back in time for the June legislative hearing will be turned in at the third and final forum in October.
Miller, who began working with CGU in the early 1980s to fight passage of the Act, said the track record of the Gorge Commission has made it clear that the agency cannot be trusted to act without close supervision.
“I feel like this is a prime time for us, we have the first glimmer of hope in years and people need to take the time to fill out the survey so that their voices can be heard,” she said.
Ferrioli chairs the eight-member Oregon panel that is co-chaired by Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett. Ferrioli said the sole purpose of all three hearings is to create findings. He said a comprehensive report will then be compiled that will be submitted to both state and federal legislators in Oregon and Washington for possible revision of the bi-state compact which governs the Gorge Commission.
“We’re not about repealing the Act, what we are about is fairness, equity and following the law,” said Ferrioli. “There has been no venue like this available for citizens that has not been tightly controlled and we wanted to give them that opportunity.”
Ferrioli said the decision to form the oversight panel followed an “outpouring” of citizen and local government complaints over the “inconsistent and inflexible” administration of Scenic Area land-use regulations.
“It is my sense that there are different equities given to those who visit the Gorge to enjoy the scenic, recreational, and cultural resources and the people who live, work and own property here,” Ferrioli said.
“This is a test of accountability, we want to make sure the Gorge Commission is meeting the mandates that were given by Congress to stimulate resource-related businesses, protect landowners, and promote economic development within cities,” he said.
Next Wednesday’s hearing, which is expected to last up to seven hours, will begin with holdover testimony from the March forum in The Dalles. Invited speakers from Hood River include Cherry Trautwein, Paul Zastrow, Ken Maddox, Darryl Lloyd, John Wood and Jeff Hunter.
The Gorge Commission and U.S. Forest Service have also been asked to report back on key issues that include the possibility of establishing a formal arbitration or mediation process for land-use appeals, ensuring regulatory uniformity in all six Scenic Area counties, the total of private acreage remaining after federal acquisitions, and a “wish list” of activities and programs that could be implemented if more funding were available.