A proposal to redevelop the decaying former Broughton Lumber mill site west of Bingen into a $80 to $90 million destination resort cleared a major hurdle Tuesday. The Columbia River Gorge Commission passed an amendment to the Management Plan for the National Scenic Area that would greatly expand the scale of what could be done at the site.
April 9, 2008
By RODGER NICHOLS
of The Dalles Chronicle
“I think they’ve given us something that we can work with,” said Jason Spadaro, CEO of Broughton Lumber Company. “It’s not exactly what we would hope for.
They’ve added some uncertainty to the process through additional regulations and restrictions that could make it less certain economically, but I think it’s something for us to work with.”
Spadaro said plans could include more than $25 million to enhance conditions in the area.
Friends of the Gorge criticized the gorge commission following a series of 10-2 votes on a number of issues surrounding the plan amendment.
“They’ve given up their responsibility to protect the National Scenic Area Act,” said Michael Lang, Conservation Director for the Friends. “They can’t be trusted to carry out the purpose of the act. The result is a second-home development, basically creating a new urban area in the gorge.”
The issue has engendered a lot of passion.
“In all the 20 years I’ve been on the commission, I’ve never seen so much misinformation about a subject broadcast to the public,” said Commissioner Joyce Reinig, “I think that has led to a lot of confusion, and strong emotion.”
Following the March meeting, Commissioners Jim Middaugh and Honna Sheffield wrote a letter to Washington Department of Ecology chief Jeff Manning requesting a state investigation of possible industrial contamination at the Broughton Mill property, though no evidence of a problem has surfaced.
In response, Skamania County commissioners called for the gorge commission to unseat the two commissioners.
Commission Chair Jeff Condit said he had received a lot of comments from fellow commissioners about the inappropriateness of Sheffield and Middaugh’s actions, especially their failure to qualify they were doing this in their personal capacities. But, he said, “it’s not a violation of the law. It’s not a violation of our rules, So I can’t recommend that we take any particular action.”
Sheffield and Middaugh were the only two votes in opposition to key provisions of the plan amendment.
The fate of the former Broughton mill site, which lies across Highway 14 and is adjacent to the Spring Creek Fish Hatchery and a state park, has been an awkward one from the beginning.
When the original management plan for the National Scenic Area was written, the site was one of only four in the gorge zoned Commercial Recreation. It is by far the largest of the sites, and the only one that encompasses a former industrial site.
All sides have agreed that some sort of redevelopment of the site would enhance the scenic, natural, cultural and recreational aspects of the gorge, but the nature and scale of any redevelopment has been at the crux of disagreement.
In the early 1990s, the management plan was amended to allow the mill to be converted into an overnight use facility with up to 175 camping spots and up to 35 cabins.
But that proposal, made when there was still partial use of the mill, was never developed. Once the mill closed completely, Broughton Lumber said the modest nature of allowed changes and changing economic conditions made the development no longer profitable.
The company revisited the issue in 2005 and held a number of meetings with stakeholders before approaching the gorge commission in April 2006 with a request for an amendment to the Management Plan.
Under the Scenic Act, amendments to the management plan must originate with the commission.
The commission, in an effort to ensure the maximum opportunity for public comment, held a pair of multi-hour town hall meetings in 2007, and heard testimony or comment on aspects of the proposal at nearly every commission meeting since.
That resulted in a staff report on the proposed amendment in August 2007, which was modified by the report of Director Jill Arens in January.
Then the commission modified the director’s report with amendments at the March meeting, which were in turn modified by amendments Tuesday.
That leant a few through-the-looking-glass moments to Tuesday’s proceeding.
“We got ourselves sort of procedurally bollixed,” said Chair Jeff Condit at one point. “This was the motion that was made at the last meeting to make these amendments that we had testimony on,” he said, “and we just had two amendments to amend that motion to amend, so we have to dispose of that main motion before we move on to the other proposed amendments that we have motions and seconds on today.”
That cloud of amendments included several instances in which the commission changed single words in the 73-page director’s report. Those included a “may” to a “shall,” an “or” to an “and,” and a “consider” to an “address.”
But there was one heavyweight change involving length of stay for people using the resort facilities. The director’s report suggested a 30-week per year maximum.
An amendment proposed at the March meeting would have tightened that to a maximum of 30 consecutive days, and 60 days in any one calendar year, restrictions suggested by the Friends of the Gorge.
But Tuesday commissioners rejected that, substituting a limit of 45 days in any 90-day period.
Friends objected that it essentially allowed 180 days a year, and said the units would become vacation homes.
Commissioners rejected that argument, saying that people were not going to pack up every 45 days to leave for 45 days and repeat the cycle four times a year.
They also said the Friends proposal would lead to the rooms being used as hotel rooms, which would compete with existing hotels, motels and bed and breakfast businesses.
Developers have said from the beginning that the financial model requires the sale of a number of units in order to make the project feasible.
Commissioners also rejected a long counter-proposal provided by the Friends of the Gorge.
Commissioner Condit noted the original provisions for development at the site had not resulted in any development, calling those positions a “straitjacket,” that prevented developers from being creative at the site.
“If we adopt [the Friends proposal],” he said Tuesday, “we would be replacing one straitjacket with another.”
Jason Spadaro agreed. When asked if the development would have been viable if the Friends’ suggested 30 consecutive day/60 day maximum annual use restriction had been left in, he replied, “Absolutely not.”
Commissioner Jim Middaugh, who voted against provisions of the plan amendment, said Tuesday’s vote would “delay redevelopment of a site that warrants redevelopment,” and said the delay will come in the form of litigation.
“I think the most important story out of this is that the resources are not just going to be protected, they’re going to be enhanced,” said Mike Usen of SE Development, a resort design firm. “Everybody should feel good about that.”
Commission Planning Manager Brian Litt and Counsel Jeff Litwak will write a final order detailing the plan amendment.
That will start a 60-day clock for possible appeals.
The order will go to nonvoting Commissioner Dan Harkenrider of the Forest Service, who will forward it with his recommendation to the Regional Forester, who will decide whether or not the amendment detailed in the order is consistent with the purposes and standards of the National Scenic Area Act.
If it’s found consistent, then Skamania County, where the Broughton site is located, would have to pass an ordinance incorporating the change into its land use ordinances.
The commission would have to conclude the ordinance was consistent with the plan amendment.
Then developers could begin the process of submitting a detailed plan to the county planning department.
That plan could be appealed to the county commissioners, and beyond them to the gorge commission.
And, as a press release from the Friends of the Gorge said, “The amendment is likely to be challenged in state court.”