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March 12th, 2008

Broughton ruling eludes panel

Gorge Commission expects to meet within two weeks to make amendment decision

By RODGER NICHOLS
of The Dalles Chronicle

     
The good news: After two years, public testimony on the proposed Broughton Landing development has been closed. The bad news? No decision yet.
     That’s the short take on the Columbia River Gorge Commission meeting Tuesday in Hood River, a continuation of a hearing begun at the February meeting on a proposed amendment to the Management Plan for the National Scenic area. That amendment would allow conversion of the former Broughton Lumber Mill site about four miles west of Bingen into a destination resort.
     Tuesday marked the 10th time the gorge commission has heard testimony on the matter.
     During the continuation of testimony from the last hearing, the commission heard comments from an additional 23 people. More than 60 testified in the first part of the hearing in February.
     Among the opponents was Lydie Boyer, who identified herself as living on the Cook-Underwood Road, “in what was probably the most photographed house in the gorge Sept. 22, the day of the infamous Broughton Bluff Fire.”
     Boyer said, “Sadly, it now seems the commission, as well as other opportunistic political and private entities, are aiming to appease the insatiable appetites of the ever-growing development industry at the gorge’s expense. The commission is at the verge of opening the floodgates for the gorge’s exploitation and abuse. With every new project approval, another will take its place until the once-unparalleled beauty of the gorge has been dissected and degraded into a blight of pollution and congestion and assemblages of leapfrog developments.”
     But Mike Usen, Senior Planner for SE Group, characterized the proposed amendment to the Management Plan for the National Scenic area as unusually strict and comprehensive, “Jurisdictions in Washington State typically rely on the State’s Environmental Policy Act (SEPA) for environmental review,” he testified, “but your amendment would go much, much farther by requiring the following studies in addition to SEPA:
     • A detailed, phase-specific traffic impact study;
     • A detailed economic impact assessment addressing effects on public services and emergency response needs, job creation, effect on tax base, and commercial activity on surrounding communities and counties and nearby urban area;
     • Recreation impact assessments evaluating site capacity, parking, river access, and on-river conditions and public health and safety;
     • Assessment of effects on surrounding areas addressing visual character, traffic generation, emergency response, fire risk and lighting, and
     • A detailed inventory of all existing development and delineation of the existing industrial complex boundaries.”
     Throughout the testimony, proponents characterized the proposed development as a needed economic boost to Skamania County and an opportunity to replace a decaying abandoned mill site with a tasteful resort complex and a number of enhancements to the local scenic, natural, cultural and recreational resources.
     Opponents painted the proposal as a violation of the principles of the National Scenic Act and a special dispensation to a single wealthy property owner.
     During its deliberations, the gorge commission did make one giant decision. It concluded that conditions in the Columbia River Gorge had changed sufficiently to warrant an amendment to the Management Plan. That vote was by a 9-2 margin. One commissioner, Joe Palena, had an excused absence for the day.
     Had the commission not made that key conclusion, the plan amendment process would have ended there.
     Having made that conclusion, commissioners spent several hours considering possible changes to the plan amendment outlined in the director’s report.
     Ultimately, the commission brought up three changes for consideration. Two were minor in character. One added design restrictions as well as use restrictions for all accommodation units at the proposed resort, and a second would change the word “consider” to “address” in a section of the plan amendment outlining a number of criteria involving the project.
     “You can consider something and then dismiss it,” said Commissioner Jim Middaugh, who proposed the amendment. “I think they should have to address those issues.”
     But the key amendment brought up for consideration would drastically reduce the length of time people could occupy accommodations at the resort.
     The plan amendment, as originally proposed by staff, would have mandated 70 percent of the units be put in a rental pool for short-term occupancy, and allowing 30 percent to be sold as full-time residences.
     The director’s report modified that, allowing no full-time residences, but defining short-term residency as less than 30 weeks per year.
     Several commissioners characterized that length of stay — equivalent to more than seven months — as being more a vacation home than a short-term resort stay.
     Instead, the commissioners will consider a suggestion by the Friends of the Gorge that stays be limited to no more than 30 consecutive days, and no more than 60 days cumulative in a single year.
     Once commissioners identified the three areas in which they were considering amendments to proposed Management Plan Amendment, Chair Jeff Condit opened the meeting to further public testimony.
     Another dozen people testified on predictable lines. Opponents supported the amendments proposed by commissioners while still denouncing the overall plan amendment.
     Supporters said the two minor items would not be a problem, but the tighter use restrictions could be a problem for developers.
     Broughton Lumber Company CEO Jason Spadaro said resorts today are not just hotels in popular locations, that they provide expensive high-quality amenities and high-quality recreational opportunities.
     “To justify that expense, there are units that are sold for part-time use by their owners and a rental availability for travelers and guests,” he said “That is the model that is necessary in order to justify these improvements. We’re willing to accept design restrictions and use restrictions. It’s always been intended not to be friendly to long-term occupancy or permanent residency. If we’re going down this path, 30 days continuous may be acceptable but you really cannot restrict 60 days cumulatively. It’s got to be something much greater than that. Sixty days cumulative will significantly affect your values.”
     Aubrey Russell, board member of the Friends of the Gorge countered that the developer was “more interested in the second home market” than in short-term stays.
     Following this round of public testimony, the hearings were closed to further comment, both oral and written.
     But commissioners ran out of time before they could vote on the three amendments. Rather than delay a decision until the April meeting,      commissioners voted to have staff arrange an interim meeting within two weeks.      Several commissioners did not have their schedules with them and could not commit to a specific date Tuesday, but said the public will be notified in a timely manner once a date was set.
     Following the meeting, Friends of the Gorge Conservation Director Michael Lang said, “We introduced an alternative proposal that would truly be a rustic recreation resort, fitting with its place in the National Scenic Area. It included more cabins, it restricted the number of RVs because we’re not big fans of RVs. It also introduced a new use, yurts, and also allowed camping ... The commission cherry-picked a few pieces of our amendments out of our bigger proposal and put it on a proposal we do not support.”
     Jason Spadero said, “I think the commission is getting down into details of operations and the public is best served if the commission remains at the policy level and lets the county process work the way it’s intended to work. For this commission to be defining how many days consecutively or how many days cumulatively is an unwieldy process and it’s very difficult to reach consensus; the county’s process is designed to get into those specifics. They are very critical amendments. The economic viability of the project will determine whether this happens and we capitalize on this opportunity to take this abandoned industrial site and turn it into an asset of the Scenic Area or not. They’re right at the crux of the issue.”

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