Looking for common ground

Gorge Commission explores urban boundary issue

Unexpected money received by the Gorge Commission will fund interviews with stakeholders as a step toward finding common ground on expanding urban boundaries in the Columbia Gorge.

The interviews will be done by a professional consensus-building team from either Portland State University or the University of Washington.

At a Gorge Commission meeting Tuesday, April 10, in Stevenson, commissioners gave the nod for the consensus-building process to move forward.

A few raised concerns, including Multnomah County’s representative, Commissioner Jim Middaugh, who said, owing to his own experiences, “I’m highly skeptical of consensus-based processes.”

He also felt the process itself was “very poorly defined” and he disagreed that there was a consensus on the commission that addressing the urban boundary issue was a pressing need.

The work will have to be done in the next two and a half months, since the unexpected funding is only available until the end of the fiscal year, June 30.

“We’ll know a lot more about how far the parties are apart,” and where they agree, once the interviews are done, said Darren Nichols, the new executive director of the commission.

The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area has three types of areas: special management areas, general management areas and urban areas. The commission has ultimate authority over land uses in the special and general management areas, but does not control what happens inside the urban areas.

However, it does control what the boundaries are of those urban areas, and several communities, notably The Dalles, have been trying for years to get their urban boundaries expanded to allow community growth and economic development.

The Dalles Community and Economic Development Director Dan Durow was at the Gorge Commission meeting, and said, “I was encouraged that the commission, at least the majority of them, felt taking this first step in a collaborative process was a good idea. It’s better than just a flat no, so I am encouraged.”

The urban boundary expansion process is an expensive one, and the Gorge Commission has said it simply doesn’t have the money, owing to years of budget cuts, to take it on. Its staff, for example, has been cut in half, and it now has the equivalent of 5.5 full-time employees.

However, Washington’s state government released some money to the Gorge Commission in February. The commission’s budget had been lowered owing to anticipated cost savings from plans to co-locate the commission’s office with another public agency. But since it never did co-locate, funds were restored to the commission’s budget.

Nichols said the consensus-building work would probably cost $60,000. It would include personal interviews with some 80-100 stakeholders on the urban boundary issue.

Commissioner Sara Grigsby, appointed by the Oregon governor, said she wanted input on who would be interviewed and what questions they would be asked.

Nichols argued that in order for the process to be objective and neutral, he preferred to leave those details to the professional consensus-builders. He said commissioners could suggest questions and potential interviewees, but he cautioned them to expect “resistance” to the idea from the professionals.

Nichols even wants the commission itself to take on the role of a stakeholder being interviewed, and not have a management role in the interview process.

Wasco County’s representative, Commissioner Rodger Nichols, said of the interview process, “This is exactly what we have been needing to do for a long time. Until we get the data, we don’t know what to think.”

The interviews with stakeholders would be phase one of the process, Director Nichols said. Phase Two would assess the information and “look at ways to achieve as many win-wins as possible,” he said.

Director Nichols said the Gorge Commission in its 25 years had established a “world-class” resource protection program, and “now it’s time to flesh out to the second part” of the scenic area act, which is promoting economic development, consistent with resource protection.

“In my mind there’s no reason to think these two things can’t work well together,” he said. In fact, he said the two may even enhance each other, if creative and innovative ideas are pursued.

Hood River’s representative, Commissioner Joyce Reinig, said the urban boundary issue has the potential to be divisive, but she said it was “exciting to see this get going and off the ground.”

Outgoing Commissioner Harold Abbe, a Washington governor appointee, said, “It’s going to be the biggest issue we’re going to face, without a doubt.”

He said “having a conversation” is relatively cheap, but developing rules from those conversations won’t be. “It’s going to be very difficult and very expensive.”

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