By a 4-1 vote the Port of Hood River Wednesday night declined to enter into lease negotiations for a cable park in the Nichols boat basin.
The cable park would have been placed on the basin on the Hood River waterfront in front of a proposed hotel project that would sit at the south end of the basin.
The decision came after months of debate and deliberation by the commission and nearly 1,400 comments to the port about the cable park.
The port had hoped that the issue would be resolved through means other than an up or down vote, particularly when a plan was presented by Port Commission President Jon Davies and Hood River Mayor Arthur Davies that would have financed improvements to the basin and surrounding area through an increased urban renewal tax increment from the hotel project and additional development at the port’s Lot 1 property.
However, after negotiations between project backers Naito Development and Friends of the Hood River Waterfront failed to get off the ground and dissolved into increasingly bitter acrimony, the port elected to give the cable park plan an up or down vote.
Friends of the Waterfront has filed a land use appeal over the city’s approval of the hotel project and has also threatened to file lawsuits alleging breaches of the Endangered Species Act and Clean Water Act over the hotel project.
Friends attorney Brent Foster said in a statement that a decision by the port to approve a cable park would have led to more time and resources spent fighting the project.
“The port’s denial saved everyone a lot of time, money and hassle and just made common sense,” Foster said.
Commissioners Jon Davies, Hoby Streich, Brian Shortt and Rich McBride voted against entering into lease negotiations for the park, saying they did not see it as a good fit for Hood River.
Fred Duckwall was the lone vote in favor, saying the cable park would “get something going” on the waterfront and spur economic development.
At the start of the meeting, Port Executive Director Michael McElwee laid out the commission’s options: vote yes to allow staff to start negotiations for a cable park in the basin, don’t make a motion and allow the subject to die, or vote no on a motion and end the possibility of a cable park.
Duckwall raised the motion and Davies seconded it.
Duckwall laid out several reasons for supporting a cable park, saying it would spur economic development and would fit in well with Hood River’s active culture.
He said that a five-year limit on any cable park lease would allow time to see if the arguments for or against it proved to be correct and that the cable park was an opportunity to jump start economic development on the waterfront.
“Something has got to move. We are going to get to a point were we don’t develop anything on Lot 1 and it will look just like it does now and we will enjoy the beauty of that every day of the year,” Duckwall said. “It’s ugly. We’ve got to get off the dime and do something and it’s just not happening. I think there is a reluctance for one party to negotiate. I think it could have been done right out in public and everyone could see it but that isn’t happening.”
Hoby Streich said that he felt the cable park was not a good fit for Hood River, or a good fit in the basin.
“After seeing a cable park and how it works myself personally I’m not convinced that it is the best fit for Hood River,” he said.
Rich McBride said he wanted to see economic development in and surrounding the basin but that the port needed to be careful in how it chose to develop the area.
“One in the hand or two in the bush is always a difficult thing and we have an opportunity here and all these commissioners here are very interested in developing Nichols basin,” McBride said. “We have seen it sit like it is for far too long, but the choice of whether to put a motorized cableway in there — it is not something we should put in our front yard and this is our front yard.
“I am willing to take the two in the bush and look forward for a green space and a pathway and amenities which would make it more of a utilized waterway,” he said.
Shortt said the he did not see a cable park improving Hood River’s quality of life.
He said that the main impact on the area would be during the summer, when the city is already crowded with activities and people.
“[F]rom a quality-of-life standpoint the cable park doesn’t fit my particular views,” Shortt said. “On an economic development standpoint ... whether you realize it or not, we are already loved to death during the summer; we have four blocks of traffic stopped up from July to September ...
“On the economic development enhancement of bringing more people to the Gorge: Maybe if it were in The Dalles or Bingen or Stevenson or Cascade Locks I would applaud that consideration, but Hood River is an epicenter and that’s why people come here,” he said.
Davies said he felt both the economic impacts of the park and its impacts on current basin users were overblown but that in the end he was inclined to agree with those who felt it was not a good fit and that he had been swayed by influential members of the community who had said as much.
“This is just a thing I don’t see fits into our future vision of the waterfront,” he said was the general message he had heard. “There wasn’t much justification than that it’s just something we don’t think it fits well there so I’m inclined to vote against it.”
Even though he voted against the cable park, Davies directed a pointed rebuke at Friends of the Waterfront for the way the group had conducted itself during the process.
“It’s impossible to talk about the cable park without talking about (Friends of the Waterfront). In my time here as a commissioner one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do is separate my feelings for how that group has operated with the issues on the cable park.
“I want to make it clear I don’t think their actions have benefited anybody. In my view they seek to usurp public process,” he said. “By going to court you are going around planning commission and going around the port commission and I don’t necessarily appreciate that. But my issues on the cable park are not related to how I feel about that group.”
During his discussion on how he intended to vote he also said he believed impacts on user groups and environmental impacts from the project were overblown.
“In my view it was vastly overrated. In the spring I was there three days a week and 90 percent of people would be using the part of the basin that would not be part of the cable park ... I really think that was overblown; I don’t think a lot of people use it on a regular basis,” he said.
“I would put a footnote on that that any use is important and there was a significant increase in use over the last year. That trend might continue and it might not.”
He also said he was disappointed that the issue had turned into “young people for it and older people opposed” and said that reflected a need for more youth-focused recreational opportunities in the area.
The port received more than 1,200 pieces of feedback from the public, either from emails or dueling online petitions from both sides.
Of the feedback it received, 634 came from opponents to the project and 619 from supporters.
The port broke down the input received into several categories: emails, petition comments and those who appeared on both a petition and emailed.
Port Office Manager Laurie Borton broke those responses down into Gorge area, which she defined as Cascade Locks/Stevenson east to Goldendale, and “Other.”
Of the 634 opposition comments, 458 responses, 72 percent, came from the Gorge area. Of the 619 comments in favor of the project, 189 responses, 30 percent, came from the Gorge area.
The Hood River Planning Commission still has a conditional use permit hearing for the cable park proposal on its agenda for Monday, but City Planning Director Cindy Walbridge told the port they would be making a decision which reflected the “lack of landowner approval.”
Bob Naito of Naito Development said in a statement that he felt the port had recognized many of the merits of the cable park but that the decision came from the possibility of the alternative vision laid out by Davies and Babitz.
“In the end I believe that the cable park was defeated by the competing vision for the boat basin offered by John Davies and Arthur Babitz. We continue to support their vision. In their plan, the west bank of the basin would be developed with a public esplanade and better public access to the water. Funds would be available for salmon habitat restoration. Both the Port and the Urban Renewal Agency voted to support the Babitz/Davies plan,” Naito said.
“The only thing standing in the way of the plan is its $2 million cost,” he said. “Property taxes from our hotel/commercial development could be used to pay for the restoration of the boat basin — but only if it is built. The irony is that the Friends of the Hood River Waterfront, with its land use appeal and threatened environmental lawsuits, is the only thing standing in the way.”
Foster contended that Friends of the Waterfront remains open to negotiations with the Naito.
“I think we continue to be open to sit down with the Naitos and talk about a bigger-picture resolution to it,” he said.
Whether or those negotiations go anywhere, the port is moving forward on some of the aspects of the Davies/Babitz plan to improve the basin and get the Lot 1 planning process going again as it puts the cable park in the rear view mirror.
“With that,” Davies said after the vote, “the cable park discussion has ended as far as the port is concerned.”