Gorge Commission OKs Broughton Resort

STEVENSON — The owners of a defunct Columbia River Gorge lumber mill won the first round Tuesday in what’s likely to be a long legal bout with those who oppose their plan to build a $70 million destination resort on the site near Underwood.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008
By KATHIE DURBIN, Columbian Staff Writer

But any celebration of their victory was premature.

The Columbia River Gorge Commission voted 10-2 to amend the management plan for the Gorge National Scenic Area to allow a 245-unit resort on Broughton Lumber Co. property. Voting against the amendment were Commissioners Jim Middaugh of Portland and Honna Sheffield of Skamania.

The advocacy group Friends of the Columbia Gorge called the decision illegal and immediately vowed to appeal.

“The gorge commission has given up the responsibility to enforce the Scenic Area Act,” said Friends conservation director Michael Lang.  The plan amendment, he said, “will create a new urban area in the scenic area, contrary to provisions of the act.”

In a follow-up press release, Lang said the commission’s action removes any requirement that resort units be available for public use and fails to require the prompt cleanup of hazardous materials at the mill site if any are found.

Broughton has proposed a 245-unit resort of condos, townhouses and cottages for the site across state Highway 14 from the Spring Creek National Fish Hatchery and a popular wind-surfing site known as “The Hatch.” The resort would include a lodge, limited retail development, hillside trails and a private beach.

Limiting stays

Tuesday’s three-hour debate focused on the key issue of how to limit occupancy of resort units by their owners to avoid creating a new urban area that would compete with existing communities and businesses.

The plan amendment states that all accommodation units  “shall be designed for and uses limited to short-term occupancy to ensure the resort protects and supports the economies of urban areas.” But its final version contains no requirement that the properties be made available to the public through a rental pool.

At the commission’s March meeting, gorge commission Chairman Jeff Condit, a Portland attorney, proposed language that would allow owners to stay in their units for no more than 30 days at a time and a total of 60 days per calendar year.

But on Tuesday, the commission’s majority latched onto a compromise proposed by Commissioner Harold Abbe of Camas, which would allow owners to occupy their units for no more than 45 consecutive days in every 90-day period.

Abbe said his concern with the stricter limit was that it would leave the resort vacant during the winter months. “The 60-day limitation is a little too restrictive” and might hamper development, he said, but a 45-day limit would assure that the resort doesn’t become “a gated community.”

“That allows a person to say in a unit half the year,” Sheffield observed. “It becomes residential, not commercial.”

“I can’t see how six months out of a year equates to short-term occupancy,” Middaugh said.

But Condit called the 45-90 proposal “a good balance.”

“There has to be a 45-day break when that unit is available to the public,” he said.

Broughton Lumber Co. President Jason Spadaro said he could live with the 45-90 rule, calling it “a reasonable compromise” that is more palatable than the 30-day restriction. “Thirty-day occupancy would put us into competition with local hotels and motels,” Spadaro said, and it wouldn’t provide the up-front capital the company needs for the $70 million redevelopment. “You can’t make a resort like this work on a hotel-motel model,” he said.  

But even the 45-day limit might delay the development of the Broughton Landing project and hurt the marketability of individual units, he said.

How to enforce the limit is a decision that will be left to Skamania County, although the Gorge Commission will have an opportunity to review its plan.

An amendment that would have explicitly required the clean-up of hazardous waste on the site failed 8-4, with Middaugh, Sheffield, Chairman Jeff Condit and Commissioner Jane Jacobsen voting in favor.

The  Washington Department of Ecology, responding to written requests from Middaugh and Sheffield and Friends of the Gorge, has agreed to conduct an initial investigation of the Broughton property to determine whether it is contaminated by fuel from underground storage tanks or other hazardous chemicals.

Also defeated was an amendment by Sheffield that would have restored language limiting the average size of individual units to 1,000 square feet. Smaller units are more in keeping with short-term visits, she said.

The defeat of her amendment prompted Middaugh to exclaim, “At every step of the way we’re chipping away at our legal obligation to protect existing urban areas.”
The adopted plan amendment places no upper limit on the number of units at Broughton Landing, but it does restrict the overall size of the resort to the footprint of the existing mill buildings.

Individual units would be limited to a maximum of 1,600 square feet and no building could be more than two and a half stories high.

Several steps remain

Tuesday’s action is only one benchmark in what is likely to be a protracted legal fight over the resort proposal. Spadaro predicted that appeals and litigation could delay the effective date of the plan amendment for as long as three years. The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture must sign off on all amendments to the scenic area management plan. Skamania County must incorporate the changes into its own scenic area ordinance.

And once those issues are resolved, Broughton will be required to submit a detailed master plan to Skamania County, which also will be subject to approval by the gorge commission.

On Tuesday, most commissioners seemed ready to be done with the issue after two and a half years of hearings and debate.

Commissioner Doug Crow of Mosier, Ore., pointed out that the Broughton property, which is zoned for low-intensity recreational development, has been available for redevelopment for 20 years.  “The door has been open to any possibility,” he said, but no other plan has moved forward.

Middaugh disagreed. He said the commission missed opportunities to find alternatives to a large resort on the site. “In the end,” he said, “we failed in our charge to pursue other options that might be more consistent with the Scenic Area Act.”