Is Gorge commission still relevant?

Dwindling funding and staff have limited agency's ability to process development requests, perform other duties

By Eric Florip, Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter



Did you know?

? The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area touches six counties: Clark, Skamania and Klickitat counties on the Washington side, and Multnomah, Hood River and Wasco counties on the Oregon side. The 292,500-acre federally protected area was created in 1986.

Did you know?

■ The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area touches six counties: Clark, Skamania and Klickitat counties on the Washington side, and Multnomah, Hood River and Wasco counties on the Oregon side. The 292,500-acre federally protected area was created in 1986.

Greg Misarti and his wife, Nell Warren, have a vision for their 5-acre property outside Washougal.

It’s called Kahnaway: an art and ecology center offering residencies and workshops for people to grow personally and artistically. Among its assets is a multi-purpose studio fashioned from an old barn in a serene setting that offers sweeping views of the Columbia River. Misarti and Warren, both artists themselves, want to share the land that’s inspired them, Misarti said.

“You don’t really appreciate it until you have been here and stay here and work here,” he said.

But an operation like Kahnaway isn’t allowed outright on the property, which sits inside the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Misarti and Warren applied for a plan amendment from the Columbia River Gorge Commission, the planning authority in the scenic area.

That was in 2009. More than five years later, they’re still waiting. But the commission has no plans to review their application any time soon.

“It’s definitely frustrating,” Misarti said. “It’s a little unnerving, because you never really know if it’s going to pan out at all.”

The commission, hobbled by tight budgets for years, struggles to keep up with even its most basic duties, staff and appointed leaders say. As staffing levels and resources have dwindled, so has the agency’s relevance and reach in some circles. In Klickitat County, where development applications go directly to the commission, permits for something as simple as a patio take more than a year to process.

Other projects remain in a holding pattern with no end in sight.

Such delays haven’t helped the commission’s standing in places where there’s still lingering discontent toward the scenic area itself, more than 25 years after it was created by an act of Congress. Yet even as his agency languishes, Executive Director Darren Nichols is aggressively pushing for both states to boost the commission’s funding and put it on better footing — to “do our job,” he said. Other advocates, meanwhile, say they want the cash-strapped commission to show it will use any new funding wisely. The push comes as lawmakers in Washington and Oregon prepare to write new state budgets that will determine the commission’s fate in the coming months.

The agency’s case will rest on the work it has done — or hasn’t — with its current staff of just six people, including Nichols. Its stated duties include protecting natural resources and fostering economic development in the region.

“If we do that job, then I think the Gorge commission is relevant,” said commission member Janet Wainwright. “I worry sometimes that we are not doing that job.”

Klickitat County frustration

Along state Highway 14, just west of Cape Horn on the Washington side of the Gorge, a large wooden sign reflects some of the hard feelings that came with the scenic area’s creation in 1986.

“THE COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE HAS GONE TO THE DOGS,” it reads, with four dogs labeled to represent some of that era’s leaders and advocates. Representing “citizens of the Gorge”? A fire hydrant.

That sentiment, just like the paint on the sign, has faded with time. It hasn’t gone away entirely.

Five of the six Gorge counties adopted their own local ordinances to carry out the federal scenic area act. But Klickitat County, one of the objectors at the time, never did. That’s why all of the county’s non-urban development applications in the scenic area must go straight to the commission.

Other counties are allowed to review applications with their own planning staff. Klickitat County must rely on a commission staff with just one full-time planner. The resulting backlog of dozens of applications means even a routine permit can take 12 to 18 months to get through the queue.

“It’s a huge source of frustration. It’s gotten worse in the last couple of years,” said Klickitat County Commissioner David Sauter. “That’s just really unacceptable. It’s really stymieing growth and stymieing projects.”

Last year, Brian Hayden filed a relatively simple development application on behalf of two landowners near Lyle. The couple wanted to build an 8-by-16-foot patio and pergola on their home, replacing a covered porch in the same location.

Hayden filed the application in the spring of 2013. The White Salmon-based contractor quickly realized there wasn’t much he could do to speed the process, and moved on to other jobs in the meantime.

Approval finally arrived in September. But due to the timing of the decision, work likely won’t start until next spring, he said — two years after the original application was filed. The backlog has left local contractors and others exasperated, Hayden said.

“The feeling around town is, people just kind of shake their head,” he said. “They’re trying to do their best, but somehow there’s a holdup.”

For their part, commission leaders say reducing the permit backlog in Klickitat County is a top priority.

“It’s frustrating for landowners, it’s frustrating for the commission, and it’s frustrating for the public,” Nichols said. “No one should have to face that kind of delay.”

Applications are generally reviewed in the order that they’re received, Nichols said. Some have questioned why simpler applications can’t move to the front of the line to speed the process. But Nichols noted some permits can be more complex than they appear due to cultural resources and other factors.

Still, many feel the commission can do better. Michael Lang, conservation director for advocacy group Friends of the Columbia Gorge, noted that the agency has chosen to hire fewer employees than it has appropriated funding for. The agency is supposed to strive to issue permit decisions within 72 days, he said. It hasn’t come close.

“The commission has the funding now to meet this obligation,” Lang wrote in an email.

The situation hasn’t helped the commission’s reputation in Klickitat County, where many residents still resent the agency and federal law it’s supposed to administer.

Technically, Klickitat County could still adopt a scenic area ordinance at any time and handle its own development applications. But doing so would expose the county to new liability and appeals, Sauter said. And any economic dollars the county would become eligible for are far from guaranteed, he said.

Klickitat County has engaged only sparingly with the commission over the years compared with its neighbors. But Sauter refuted the notion that the county isn’t interested in resource protection, that it wants unchecked development.

“That is all completely false,” Sauter said. “We took great care of this place before the scenic area was passed. Otherwise, there would have been nothing to protect.”

What burned many residents, he said, was the feeling that they were tossed aside so “outside interests” could take care of the Gorge for them.

“That’s where the bad blood came from,” Sauter said. “That’s hard to get over.”

Work left undone

Of course, opinions of the scenic area and the commission are as diverse as the Gorge itself. In many cases, people are largely unaware of the agency’s role.

Nichols has answered the question before. At its core, he says the commission exists to help citizens and communities protect the Gorge and support the economy. It’s a bi-state planning agency that oversees land-use in the region and implements a federal law, led by a 13-member appointed commission.

The scenic area boundary encompasses only a small percentage of residents in Clark County and Multnomah County in Oregon. But even in the heart of the Gorge, the commission itself isn’t always on the radar. Oregon’s Hood River County, for example, hasn’t been significantly affected by the agency’s eroding budget and staff, said Mike Benedict, who retired this month as the county’s community development director.

“Hood River County has a good relationship with the Gorge commission, but very little contact,” Benedict said.

But as the agency tries to stay afloat, many broader projects that would benefit the Gorge simply aren’t getting done, Nichols said. The commission is supposed to complete a regular management plan review, but has never fully done so, he said. A recreation assessment would help the region plan for its economic future as a hub for outdoor activities, he said. Many of the old files and maps in the commission’s White Salmon office need to be digitized and given greater clarity, he said. Meanwhile, climate change, oil trains and other issues are changing the physical and political landscape.

Turmoil, transparency

As for the Kahnaway project in Clark County, the commission simply can’t take on a land-use review of that complexity, Nichols said — even though commissioners have reacted positively to the proposal.

“Unfortunately, we just can’t get to that,” Nichols said. “At this staffing level, it’s not foreseeable that the commission will get to those kinds of projects.”

To underscore its needs, the agency this year spent more than $40,000 on an administrative assessment detailing what it would take for the commission to carry out its duties. The report, completed by researchers from the University of Washington and Portland State University, recommended up to 25.5 full-time staff and an annual budget of $3.5 million. The commission now operates on less than $900,000 per year.

Nichols has made the report a cornerstone of his pitch for more funding from both states. He’s also pushed for more autonomy — a message that hasn’t always been well-received, he acknowledged.

Even some Gorge advocates have urged the commission to tread carefully. Any new funding should come with accountability to ensure that the money is going to be well spent, Lang said.

“What the commission and staff has to improve is its transparency and its budgeting process,” Lang said.

The UW-PSU report, though generally welcomed, was completed without commission members’ prior approval. This summer, two commissioners resigned their posts as chair and vice chair — but stayed on the commission — over the role played by commission members versus Nichols and his staff in guiding the agency’s direction. Most of the commission’s 13 members, however, have indicated they’re comfortable with staff’s leadership.

The commission is funded in equal parts by Washington and Oregon. If the two states’ legislatures authorize different amounts, then the total budget is determined by whichever is lower. In the 2013-15 biennium, that was Washington.

Oregon Gov. Kitzhaber has recommended nearly doubling his state’s contribution to the commission in 2015-17. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee recommended mostly flat funding for the agency in his budget proposal. The decision will ultimately be left up to both states’ legislatures.

Kitzhaber’s budget would give the commission about $1.7 million per year if Washington followed suit. That would allow the agency to hire additional staff and reduce the Klickitat County backlog, Nichols said.

The proposal amounts to an increase of about $768,000 for the biennium, or $384,000 per year. That’s a small dent in both states’ multibillion-dollar budgets.

“When you think about it in those terms, $384,000 a year to help this agency do its job to build a national and, indeed, an international model for sustainable community development inside a protected, iconic natural landscape, it’s worth it,” Nichols said. “It’s worth every dime.”