State Sen. Ted Ferrioli issued a strong rebuke this week over the way business is done in the National Scenic Area.
He hopes that findings from a trio of Subcommittee on Columbia River Gorge Commission Review hearings this year will change things. The second and third hearings of the bi-partisan panel will both take place in Hood River County; the first is scheduled Oct. 14 at the Hood River Inn and the second Oct. 15 at Cascade Locks City Hall. Both hearings will go from 1 to 7 p.m.
“It’s clear from their pattern of abuse that the Gorge Commission thinks they have no authority to answer to other than themselves — it’s time the legislature shows them that we do have the will to rein them in,” said Ferrioli, R-John Day, who heads the eight-member group studying the bi-state entity’s role and operations.
Although Martha Bennett, executive director of the Gorge Commission acknowledged the agency has not had a good track record for public relations, she said a genuine effort has been made under her one-year tenure to mend bridges with local governments and to work more cooperatively with Scenic Area landowners.
“I think we’ve heard their (subcommittee) message loud and clear and I do think we’re making progress, although there’s still work to be done,” said Bennett.
But Ferrioli believes that the only way the Commission can overcome the “polarity” between itself and Scenic Area landowners is to get rid of the employees who created those problems in the first place through numerous “unjust” actions.
“I had great hope when the new director came on board but so far I haven’t seen any housecleaning, the same staffers are still on the ramparts,” said Ferrioli, who expected to see administrative changes following the Subcommittee’s March hearing in The Dalles.
Bennett declined to talk about personnel issues, but said the agency has become a lot less defensive and secretive when interacting with the public.
“Slightly over half of the appeals brought before the Commission within the last year were mediated — we are doing a lot better job of listening and trying to prevent problems,” she said.
If Ferrioli had strong words about Gorge Commission practices, he made equally strong statements about the “tactics” of Friends of the Columbia Gorge, a Portland-based environmental group.
“It appears that what they’re trying to do is bankrupt people that they’ve targeted through malicious prosecution,” said Ferrioli.
However, Michael Lang, Friends conservation director, refuted Ferrioli’s claim and said the senator doesn’t give credit that 97 percent of Scenic Area development applications are approved.
“His voting record shows that he is an extremist and an enemy of the environment who favors polluters, favors poor water quality, time after time,” said Lang.
Countered Ferrioli, “I think it is wrong if one Scenic Area landowner’s civil rights are violated, it makes the whole system stink.”
For example, he said two Gorge families, Brian and Jody Bea of Skamania County, Wash., and Tim and Casey Hueker of Dodson, have been forced to spend more than $20,000 in legal fees to defend their property rights from challenges by the Commission and Friends. Ferrioli said it was particularly “onerous” that even after winning their case before the Washington State Supreme Court, the Beas were still fighting for the right to move into the home they started building more than three years ago. He said the plight of the Hueker family was even worse, since the couple and their three children, the fourth due early next year, were almost at the two-year mark in their battle just to rebuild their home that was destroyed by fire.
“Injustice cries out to be addressed and my job is to make this work for all of the citizens of the Mid-Columbia — when it does I’m finished but if it doesn’t I won’t look away,” Ferrioli said.
Ferrioli said both the Beas and Huekers have been invited to testify at one of the mid-October hearings. He has also asked both Gorge Commission and U.S. Forest Service officials 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, a total on private acreage remaining after federal acquisitions, and a “wish list” of activities and programs that could be implemented if more state and federal funding were available.
Ferrioli said the findings from all three hearings will be incorporated into a final report that will be submitted to Oregon and Washington state and federal legislators for review. He said the compiled information will most likely lead to a revision of the bi-state compact which governs the Gorge Commission that is funded by the two state but was created to protect the mandates of the federal law that created the nation’s first Scenic Area in 1986.
“The fact of the matter is that there would not be this level of hostility to the NSA if it worked,” Ferrioli said.