Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, wound up three hearings over the role and operations of the Columbia River Gorge Commission with a threat and a promise.
“If change for the positive is evident then I think our (legislative) struggle for funding is easy, if not it will be difficult,” said Ferrioli, who co-chaired the Oregon oversight panel that took 16 hours of public testimony on Monday and Tuesday. The Hood River County hearings followed the March forum of the Subcommittee for Columbia River Gorge Commission Review in The Dalles.
In a follow-up interview, Martha Bennett, executive director of the Gorge Commission, said staffers have already been working to make procedural and structural changes as directed by Ferrioli. When she took her position last year, Bennett said she was aware that she was inheriting almost 16 years of divisiveness, but she remains “undaunted” by the challenge of building public trust.
“I don’t think anybody’s really going to be happy about being regulated but if we can be seen as a regulatory body that is fair and equitable that will be a success,” she said.
Bennett said the Commission will ask for legislative help with some changes, including the possible appointment of an independent ombudsman to guide landowners through regulatory channels. She said state and federal officials could also lobby for amendments to the Scenic Act so the appeals procedures could be streamlined to prevent lengthy delays in Scenic Area applications.
“Martha Bennett can count on my full support for any suggested changes that would make the process less meddlesome,” Ferrioli said.
He was joined in that sentiment by his co-chair, Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett, who said, “I thought all three hearings were very worthwhile and I am optimistic that the necessary and needed changes can be accomplished to balance the protection of our great natural resources with the needs of our rural economies.”
Both Ferrioli and Smith plan to sit down with Bennett and Kim Titus, acting area manager of the U.S. Forest Service’s Scenic Area office, and work out a plan of action in the near future.
Bennett also envisions legislative help to coordinate timelines among the six Gorge counties for processing Scenic Area applications. She said all of these changes will help simplify the complex regulatory process.
“There is a long way to go but I think that improvements began after Oregon and Washington legislators engaged in this discussion over the authority to provide true oversight,” said Ferrioli, who scheduled the hearings to address ongoing complaints from Gorge citizens and local governments.
At the final hearing on Tuesday, Ferrioli told Bennett that the agency could make changes in the way it did business by the time the legislative convened in January — or state officials from Oregon and Washington would do it for them.
“We can’t argue with the fact that the Scenic Area is a national treasure, we also can’t argue that it needs to work for the people who live and work in the Gorge communities,” he later said.
Ferrioli gave the Commission that mandate after receiving confirmation from the Oregon Legislative Counsel that procedural and structural revisions could be made to the bi-state compact which governed the Commission as long as these did not interfere with federal protection mandates. He said the findings from 24 hours of public testimony this year alone would back up the need for changes to the administration of the Act.
“The best law is no new law but if we can’t expect change to happen then we ought to look at the bi-state compact which governs the Commission as a tool,” Ferrioli said.
Although this week’s testimony was mixed in support and opposition to the Scenic Act, the most emotionally charged story was given by Casey Hueker, a Dodson landowner.
A tearful Hueker recounted the regulatory nightmare facing her family in their quest to rebuild a home that burned down 22 months ago. She said although the building permit was finally issued, the family was contesting the landscaping standards under debate by the Gorge Commission, Friends of the Columbia Gorge and Multnomah County.
Hueker said after spending about $20,000 in legal fees, the family was now being asked to plant more than $30,000 in mature trees to hide the dwelling that will sit on the shores of the Columbia River. Friends contends the screening is necessary to preserve the viewshed for thousands of hikers on Beacon Rock, which is located directly across the river from the Hueker’s six-acre homesite.
“I don’t think it’s fair that a property owner who has lost everything in a disaster has to also lose their view of the river,” said Hueker.
Ferrioli grilled Bennett about why the Heukers were being asked to plant large and expensive trees around their replacement home.
“We’re asking people to plant trees that would qualify by U.S. Forest Service standards as timber,” Ferrioli said. “I guess if there’s an issue that would be a poster child of the need for a clearer definition of ‘visually subordinate’ this would be it.”
Bennett agreed that the Scenic Area land-use plan needed to be amended with provisions for emergency situations such as the Huekers. She said that issue was on the table for discussion during the Commission’s current plan review.
Chris Hueker, Casey’s brother-in-law, informed Ferrioli about another omission in the plan that was threatening the family’s commercial fishing business. Although the Dodson processing and packing operation had been ongoing for the past 30 years, Hueker said these activities for non-tribal members were not specified in the land-use management plan adopted in 1991 so Multnomah County had threatened to shut them down.
“We are harvesting a natural, renewable resource in a very low impact and non-disturbing way,” said Hueker.
Ferrioli urged Bennett to address the “oversight” in the plan review and Hueker promised to seek out legislative help if denied the right to make a living.
“I hope that this plan review is a two-way street and not just a one-way road to tighten up the rules on everyone,” he said.
Bennett said the seated Commission has a good balance of viewpoints and she believes the current review will take care of a lot of the outstanding issues. For example, she said the siting requirements for development can be more clearly defined. In addition, she said the appointed body will be discussing the possibility of handing off responsibility for appeals to a hearings officer, a move that Ferrioli strongly supports since he does not believe that landowners should have to make an appeal before the same Commission that rendered the initial decision.
“I haven’t heard anyone say anything about what happens in the Scenic Area that I couldn’t find some validity in their view,” said Bennett. “We do have 16 years of history and at least the first 10 of that we’ve had a lot of issues.
“You rebuild trust on decisions, one at a time, by consistently performing in a fair and equitable manner,” she said.
Michael Lang, Friends conservation director, said the Portland-based environmental group is supportive of adding funding to the Gorge Commission’s annual budget of about $700,000. He said more monies are needed to provide technical assistance to counties and enforcement against violators of the Scenic Act.
Bennett would like to see more federal dollars dedicated toward economic development in the Gorge and recreational facilities, such as more public restrooms along the Interstate 84 and State Route 14 travel corridors.