By MARTHA BENNETT
Special to the News
This month Columbia River Gorge Commission will dig into one of the most challenging parts of the Management Plan — regulations on how we protect the views and landscapes of the Gorge. The Commission needs your help in this work, and we hope that you’ll find time to give us your ideas by writing, e-mailing, or testifying at a public meeting on May 27 at the Hood River Inn’s Bridgeview Room, starting at 1:30 in the afternoon.
Since summer 2001, The Columbia River Gorge Commission, together with citizens, the six county governments, four tribal nations, several state agencies, and the U.S. Forest Service, has been working on our first review of the Management Plan.
The Management Plan is both a policy document — that reflects the two purposes of the National Scenic Area Act — and an implementing document, which contains regulations that govern developments outside of the Gorge’s 13 urban areas.
Over the past few months, we’ve tackled issues related to the protection of natural resources. We’ve also looked at land uses allowed in the Gorge, such as how to handle additions to buildings, reclamation of old gravel pits, and replacement of existing buildings. Now we dive into the scenic resource regulations.
For the past year, a committee of Gorge Commissioners has reviewed the Scenic Resources chapter of the Management Plan, and the Commission will be taking up three important issues after that review. The first two relate to new tools that are needed to create more certainty about the regulatory process. The Commission will consider creating a “Scenic Handbook,” which landowners can use in putting projects together. The Commission will also discuss the need for “corridor” plans for Interstate 84 and Washington State Road 14 to make sure that these highways are efficient and safe for transportation and also fit in with the character of the landscape.
The Commission will also take up a third issue — guidelines that govern where new homes or buildings are placed on a property. Since the Management Plan was adopted in 1991, new development must be sited to “minimize visibility” from Key Viewing Areas, the vantage points from where we view the Gorge’s spectacular vistas.
The “minimize visibility” guideline has been one of the most controversial Gorge regulations over time. Some believe that this regulation takes away the key benefits of owning a home in the Gorge since it unreasonably forces a landowner to “hide” a house. Others believe that you shouldn’t see a new house, barn, or garage.
The Gorge Commission will be looking at proposed regulations designed both to protect the interests of Gorge landowners in enjoying the landscape and to ensure that the public can still look at the heartstopping views.
Over time, we’ve learned a lot about what works best to help a building blend into the Gorge’s landscape. For example, we know that color — the color a building is painted — is very effective and relatively inexpensive in helping buildings blend in. If you paint your building the right color, a viewer’s eye is not drawn to it, and the viewer sees the total landscape rather than your building. We also know that once a home or building is constructed, it’s going to be there for a while, so it is important to put the building on the “right” site on the property.
The proposed new regulations would emphasize the elements of a development that are longest lasting and most effective in blending a building in with its setting. Under this proposal, planning agencies would first evaluate where a proposed building would be sited on a property. In evaluating the site, planners would consider the property’s topography, vegetation, and the distance to the closest key viewing area. Then, planners would consider the design elements of a new building — its height, size, color, and materials. Agencies would regulate these elements of a new building to ensure that it meets the overall goal of “visual subordinance,” meaning that it doesn’t dominate the surrounding landscape.
We think this proposal balances the needs of residents, citizens, and visitors who are enjoying the total landscape, and those of people looking to build a home or other structure on their property. We believe that this proposal will protect the Gorge for generations to come. In addition, we believe this approach will be easier for planning agencies and residents to understand and apply, making it fair throughout the Gorge and stronger because it works better.
We expect to hear from many people with strong feelings on this subject, and we need everyone’s help to make sure we get it right. Everyone who lives, works, and plays in the Columbia River Gorge has something to offer on this topic. Visit our Web site to learn more about the specific issues:
Submit your comments by e-mailing or writing the Commission by May 23, or participating at the public hearing on May 27. Help us keep the Gorge a living, working, landscape for the next 10 and the next 10,000 years.
Martha Bennett is Executive Director of the Columbia River Gorge Commission.