The Columbia River Gorge Commission was both praised and vilified March 15 in the first of three Oregon legislative hearings centered on its role and operations.
During the seven-hour forum at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center in The Dalles, Martha Bennett, executive director of the Gorge Commission, and Daniel Harkenrider, new manager of the U.S. Forest Service National Scenic Area office, both said they thought the Scenic Act was working largely as intended by Congress.
"The Oregon implementation doesn't face any different problems than land-use planning anywhere in the state," said Bennett, who took on her new duties last July.
However, numerous landowners recounted bureaucratic "horror stories" to the Subcommittee on Columbia River Gorge Commission Review. The eight-member panel was chaired by Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, and co-chaired by Hood River's Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett. Sen. Rick Metsger, D-Welches, was also invited to participate since he inherited Hood River County in his new District 26 through last fall's legislative redistricting.
"We are told that 97 percent of the Scenic Area applications are approved `at some level of difficulty' and Friends of the Columbia Gorge points to that as a successful record and says `you can't please everyone'," said Ferrioli in a summary of the hearing on Monday. "But if there is even one situation where a citizen was denied his civil rights during that process then that one situation indicts the entire system," he said.
At the March 15 hearing, Ferrioli invited Michael Ferguson, a Wasco County landowner, to testify about his nine-month battle with the Gorge Commission. Ferrioli said Ferguson's story exemplified the outpouring of Scenic Area citizen complaints that had led him to make a 1996 campaign process to bring "fairness and balance" to enactment of the federal law.
"I think it is very difficult for someone who hasn't experienced the Gorge Commission first hand to believe the way it is capable of treating people," said Ferguson, the chief economist for the state of Idaho.
Ferguson said his nightmare began in April of 2000 when he went to the Gorge Commission to get the answer to a simple question: did the Scenic Area boundary line run through his new property? Almost a year later Ferguson said that response came back as a resounding "no," but the Gorge Commission made him fight every step of the way for that determination from the Oregon State Board of Examiners for Engineering and Land Surveying.
Ferguson said he had been instructed at his own expense to hire a licensed land surveyor -- he did not pick the one choice offered by Gorge Commission staffers -- to answer his question. Then the surveyor's findings were rejected outright without any factual basis. Instead, Ferguson said the Gorge Commission tried to "work a deal" with him that would place "100 feet or so" of his land within the Scenic Area and, when that was refused, demanded that he work with the new GIS coordinator.
Ferguson said that "bad scientific approach" was compounded by arguments over whether the width of the "Magic Marker" line drawn to depict the Scenic Area boundary -- representative of a 40-mile wide swath at some points -- should apply.
"What I encountered was either serious incompetence or dishonesty and I don't see any other explanation for their behavior," said Ferguson. "The residents of the Gorge have an incredibly difficult challenge; how do they convey to the outside world how they are being treated?"
For example, Ferguson said the Royse family in Dobson was told that they couldn't reclaim their property which was covered by natural debris from a landslide in 1996 because rock crushing activities would be considered "mining," which is illegal under the Scenic Area Act.
"Who in Portland would stand for a tree falling on their house and then being told they couldn't remove it because logging was not allowed in the urban area?" asked Ferguson.
Even when directed by the Gorge Commission to take an action, other landowners said the staff continued to make "arbitrary and capricious" decisions.
Joy Collins, representing Lyle, Wash., resident Gail Castle, said the highly publicized case did not have the happy ending most people believed it did. She said Castle had been prohibited by a "gag order" from publicly speaking about the continuing problems she had with Gorge Commission staffers. Although last year Castle won her contested battle to build a replacement home on her 2,000-acre ranch, she has since been required to plant so many trees in the rocky ground to "minimize" its visibility that she is being cut off from her own view of the Gorge.
Even Rep. Chris Beck, D-Portland, a committee member, said he had faced a "frustrating" eight-year process to gain a "simple" demolition permit for property in the Gorge. However, he also said that while many of the hardship cases drew "sympathy on the surface" they were also legally precedent setting.
Ferrioli said visual subordinance and other design standards needed to be uniformly delineated to avoid the appearance of unfairness. He asked Bennett to prepare documentation for the June 26 hearing, to be held in Hood River, that would outline administrative rules for handling client requests, staff accountability, and outlining a formal mediation process to allay citizen concerns that the Gorge Commission served as the "judge, jury, and executioner" on land-use cases.
"I don't know of any other system that is just where people have to go to the decision makers to make an appeal," said Ferrioli.
Conversely, many stakeholders attended the hearing to express their appreciation for the strong role the Gorge Commission played in protecting cultural, natural, scenic and recreational resources.
Mosier resident Gay Jervey said $500,000 of Scenic Area funds set aside for economic development had been dedicated to the waterfront restoration project she was spearheading. She said that work clearly demonstrated the strong partnership between all the involved entities.
However, real estate agent James Wilcox said most of the $8 million of economic development funding disbursed within the Gorge would be better labeled as "environmental enhancement" since these projects brought few, if any, family-wage jobs.
"We are dying on the vine here, the only economic development that is being done in the Gorge is the money that is being spent on lawyers," said Wilcox.
Washington State Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, a guest on the committee, and Ferrioli both expressed concern about the high unemployment rates in the Mid-Columbia communities and the scarcity of business or industrial development.
Honeyford attributed that scenario, in part, to controversy swirling around the Gorge Commission's quest to have the region studied for possible enactment of greater air protection standards than already existed under the Clean Air Act. He said that move had already scared away several known potential investors.
Ferrioli asked Bennett to also make a report at the June hearing about steps the Gorge Commission would take to advocate more strongly for federal economic development funding.
Michael Lang, conversation director for Friends, a Portland-based environmental group, said he believed the Scenic Act had a "positive effect" on economic development in the Gorge. He said the $5 million authorized under the federal law for Skamania Lodge had brought 300 new jobs and a large private business to Skamania County, Wash. In addition, he said 600 new homes had been built in the Scenic Area and 200 new land divisions had been approved since the Act became law in 1986. He said Friends was highly supportive of extending the land acquisition program set up for the severely restricted Special Management Areas (SMA) into the less regulated General Management Areas.
That topic generated discussion about the dwindling private property base in the Gorge, with Skamania County, Wash., down to only seven percent in private ownership and Hood River County with 26 percent.
"Some people will believe that as long as there's one acre of private property left in the National Scenic Area the job's not finished," said Ferrioli.
At one point Lang's testimony was interrupted by Rep. Donna Nelson, R-McMinnville, who said, "I just want to caution you that we wouldn't have the lowest employment rate in Oregon if we were doing the right thing and there is nothing wrong with protecting the environment but we seem to have taken it to unnecessary heights."
Sen. Ken Messerle, R-Coos Bay, also refuted the assertion by both Harkenrider and Lang that 35,000 acres within the Scenic Area had all been purchased from "willing sellers."
"When public policy puts people out of business and then we step in and say they're willing sellers it really means absolutely nothing," said Messerle.
Ferrioli said although the state has authority to modify the bi-state compact governing the Gorge Commission, some of the public policy issues need to be addressed at the federal level. He said one of these areas of concern is the fact that the SMA land-use zoning was set in place by the Forest Service without going through the standard National Environmental Protection Act public comment process. He plans to bring that "omission" to the attention of U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., who has stated his intent to schedule a federal oversight hearing in the near future.