Zip-line operator appears at hearing

Owner appealed county order to stop offering tours

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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The Washougal man running a zip-line attraction on his property appeared before a Clark County hearing examiner Wednesday to appeal the county’s order to stop operations.

About a year ago, Derek Hoyte started Heritage Farms Canopy Tours and installed four zip lines on his 5-acre property at 3618 S.E. 327th Ave. Hoyte never obtained needed county permits to operate the business on the property, which is zoned rural residential. To begin the permitting process and determine whether the activity is allowed, Hoyte needed to obtain a conditional use permit.

Code Enforcement Coordinator Donna Goddard issued a notice and order on Sept. 1 after Hoyte failed to obtain permits. The action ordered Hoyte to stop offering the tours within 10 business days. He appealed the order and continued to operate the business.

On Wednesday, Hoyte said he wants to work with the county but wants clarification as to what permits he needs.

“I’m not denying permits are needed or necessary,” Hoyte said. “I’ve wanted to comply all along.”

The county contends Hoyte was told several times he needed a conditional use permit but continued to operate without permits.

After nearly two hours of testimony, examiner Joe Turner ended the public hearing and said he would issue a written decision within two weeks.

“Given the testimony I’ve heard today, it appears some sort of permit is required,” Turner said.

The county also recommended action against Hoyte, including a timeline for submitting permit applications; a civil penalty of $750 for violating county code; and a fine of $250 for every day the violation continues if Hoyte fails to comply with the examiner’s final order.

This isn’t the first time Hoyte has been at odds with county officials about permits. His last run-in occurred in Skamania County, where he operated six zip lines on 83 acres without permits. Hoyte claimed the lines were used for agricultural purposes because they provided visitors to his U-pick pine cone farm with transportation across the ranch.

Skamania County officials disagreed. Hoyte was fined $1,000 and spent five days in jail in August 2009 for violating the county’s order to stop operating the tours. He was released after the lines were removed.

At the hearing Wednesday, Hoyte argued the Clark County operation is considered agriculture (agri-tourism) and is used to move visitors to different areas of his orchard. Hoyte’s orchard has apple trees that are harvested for personal consumption, he said. As an agricultural activity, the business would be exempt from permit requirements.

County code defines agriculture and agricultural uses/activities as the use of the land for farming, dairying, pasturage, horticulture, viticulture and wineries, animal and poultry husbandry, among others, and necessary accessory uses and structures. The county contends the zip lines are neither agriculture nor an agricultural accessory use.

Hoyte also contended the activity is a forest practice. Forest Practice Rules allow ecosystem services, which include recreational tourism, he said. Zip lines between living trees are recreational tourism, Hoyte argued.

But Hoyte said the activity, depending on how it’s classified, may require a forest service permit. Hoyte said he plans to take the lines down, regardless of how the examiner rules, and pursue obtaining that permit.

Lori Volkman, the county’s deputy prosecuting attorney, said forest practices apply to the growing and harvesting of timber, which does not describe the character of Hoyte’s land.

Hoyte also took issue with the county referring to the zip-line attraction as an amusement service. Volkman said Hoyte advertises and markets the activity as recreation. She also pointed out that Hoyte has obtained an amusement ride operating permit from the state.

Hoyte said the county is singling him out and discriminating against his business. But Volkman said the county was notified of another zip-line operation in the county. That business owner followed county requests to apply for a conditional use permit, she said.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546 or marissa.harshman@columbian.com.