In one phrase, Hood River resident Susan Crowley summed up the strong passions that have divided discussions over the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Act for the past 16 years.
“This is almost a religious conflict,” Crowley told an Oregon legislative panel at a special hearing on Monday to review the role and operations of the Gorge Commission.
She praised the passage of the 1986 federal law that protected the “national treasure” and called for the state officials to end the “gotcha” game against the Commission that created an “administrative quagmire.”
“We hog tie them by denying adequate funding then wait for them to make mistakes when their resources are limited and then say ’gotcha,’” said Crowley.
She joined other members of Friends of the Columbia Gorge and Scenic Act supporters in the call for more funding of the Commission.
These requests were made both verbally and in written testimony to the Subcommittee on Columbia River Gorge Commission Review that was co-chaired by Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, and Rep Patti Smith, R-Corbett.
“Many of the controversies about the Gorge Commission can be traced to limited capabilities and efforts that reflect limited funding from the Oregon and Washington Legislatures,” read Mosier resident Gay Jervey from a written statement prepared by Ken Maddox of Hood River.
However, Hood River resident Rita Swyers submitted results of a Scenic Area survey that showed 218 property owners believed they had been “victimized” by heavy-handed bureaucracy.
“My heart is breaking over what is happening to residents of the Gorge,” said Swyers, who worked with representatives from two Gorge private property rights watchdog groups to collect the findings.
The stories she recounted included the expensive legal battle faced by many landowners to build a home, inconsistencies in the administration of regulations and downzoning of property that left the mortage holder with no value or use.
“It is possible to preserve the beauty of the Gorge and protect the Constitutional rights of residents,” Swyers told the state officials.
These “horror” stories were backed up by testimony from other landowners on both sides of the Columbia River who said they had been adversely affected — and even from supporters of the NSA such as Hood River’s Jeff Hunter.
Hunter, a realtor, said that although the “vast majority” of Scenic Area development applications were approved, he had experience with two cases that called for some reform.
“I offer these examples to allow us to fine tune implementation to strike a balance between individual property rights on the one hand and our responsibility as stewards of this treasure to pass it on intact to the next generation,” said Hunter.
His examples included two Mosier properties, one that left the owner with lost valuation because any new home had to be sited in a “depression” to avoid visibility and the second that forced the owner to spend more than three years and about $25,000 in legal fees to fight a development challenge.
He recommended that siting guidelines be revised to a “reasonable standard” so homeowners could enjoy some view of the Gorge and the appeals process be shortened for contested decisions.
Ferrioli agreed that steps needed to be taken to eliminate the lengthy appeals process, possibly by establishing a formal arbitration or mediation process. He questioned whether the Gorge Commission was the correct body to hear appeals of its own decisions, a methodology that was not practiced by any other state agency.
“The goal is not to eliminate the right of appeal but to consolidate the causes,” said Ferrioli, who also favored establishment of both citizen and tribal advisory committees.
“Their (Commission) job is huge and there’s so many interests that have to be balanced, perhaps we’re asking too much of the Commission alone,” Ferrioli said.
In a rare moment of unity, both proponents and opponents of the Scenic Act agreed that the land acquisition program overseen by the U.S. Forest Service needed to be reviewed for changes.
Several Gorge residents said the program to purchase heavily regulated Special Management Area lands appeared to be unevenly applied, with similar properties valued as high as $75,000 per acre to as low as $4,000. Norm Haight, a Skamania County, Wash., landowner, said added emphases needed to be given toward the purchase of General Management Area properties since many of these parcels were also severely restricted for use.
Ferrioli asked to see the paperwork in the case of Klickitat County resident Gene Witham who had spent 16 years attempting to negotiate a purchase of his non-developable parcel.
Rep. Chris Beck, D-Portland, a member of the panel, termed the Scenic land acquisition process as “funky” and said a greater effort needed to be given to target key properties for protection.
Although Hood River resident Christine Knowles heralded the Scenic Act for increasing tourism and other economic opportunities throughout the Gorge, Ferrioli pointed out previous testimoney that had shown the unemployment rates in both Hood River and Wasco Counties as the highest in the state. He also questioned whether the community of Hood River was becoming “exclusive” by not providing affordable housing for all income levels and forcing younger generations to move out of the area for employment. He called for an economic development study that would factor the effect of Scenic Area regulations into the financial picture.
Continued coverage of this topic will appear in the Oct. 19 edition, following the third and final hearing of the oversight panel.