Agency OKs gorge developmenton votes to allow large development

Land use – The approval is the first step toward clearing the way for building a multimillion-dollar resort

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

BRAD SCHMIDT The Oregonian

STEVENSON, Wash. — The agency charged by Congress with protecting the Columbia River Gorge voted Tuesday to revise its land-use management plan in a move that could clear the way for development of a large-scale resort featuring several hundred individually owned housing units.

The controversial 10-2 decision by the Columbia River Gorge Commission marks the first step toward construction of an estimated $80-million to $90-million recreation resort with townhouse or condo-style units the size of small homes. It would be the only resort on land outside designated urban areas in the gorge. Opponents say it is residential housing masquerading as a “commercial recreation” project.

A majority of the commission said the land-use changes apply only to one property — a closed mill site west of Underwood, Wash., owned by Broughton Lumber Co. — and will not set a gorgewide precedent enabling development elsewhere.

“It’s a benefit to the community and to all those that come to the gorge,” said Joyce Reinig, who has been a gorge commissioner since Congress passed the landmark National Scenic Area Act in 1986. “This does not open the door to multiple resorts.”

But already conservation group Friends of the Columbia Gorge is considering legal challenges to the decision. If appealed, a final court ruling could be years away. The landowner — still needing additional government approvals — would not speculate about when construction on the project could begin.

“It’s likely going to be appealed,” said Michael Lang, Friends’ conservation director. The commission, he said, “is no longer carrying out its responsibility to protect the gorge.”

Tuesday’s decision came down to provisions outlining how long residents could stay at the resort. Commissioners said they want the project to be economically viable and wrestled with proposals that would limit “short-term occupancy” to either 60 days or 180 days a year, eventually opting for the latter.

“It’s easy for us to be very cavalier” with restrictions, said Commissioner Joe Palena, who voted in favor of the project. “This is a gift, and I don’t want to pass it up.”

But there was not consensus.

Commissioner Honna Sheffield argued that residents could live at the resort half the year, and called the project residential housing disguised for commercial-recreation purposes. Commissioner Jim Middaugh, who also is running for Portland city commissioner, noted that the allowable maximum size of units — 1,600 square feet — is larger than some new single-family homes being built in Portland.

“We have essentially changed it to a residential zone,” Sheffield said. “We’re not protecting the gorge if we allow development that’s not within the plan.”

The gorge commission is a bi-state agency formed by Congress to manage non-urban land in the 85-mile gorge. The Broughton property, located along State Route 14 near Spring Creek Hatchery State Park, is one of four parcels designated for “commercial recreation” use.

The land had been zoned for up to 175 campsites and 35 cabins. But the commission decided last month that conditions have changed to warrant revisions, and on Tuesday approved a management plan allowing an unspecified number of housing units averaging 1,300 square feet in size. Original proposals by the landowner called for about 250 units.

Jason Spadaro, who represents the Stevenson family that owns the Broughton property, told commissioners that limiting overnight occupancy would make it more difficult to sell the units. He called Tuesday’s decision “a critical first step” and said the residency restriction is “something we can work with.”

Spadaro said the project would include more than $25 million toward enhancements for the scenic area.

He noted that legal appeals could be used to challenge not only Tuesday’s ruling but also project approvals that are needed from Skamania County and the U.S. Department of the Interior. Also, the gorge commission will review the proposal one more time.

Still, after fighting for the project for roughly two years, Spadaro let out a long, deep breath, bowed his head and smiled after the vote.

“It’s been a long road,” he said.