Bid to build houses on ag land in Gorge denied

Hearing examiner: Plan to develop lots fails to satisfy land-use rules

By Jake Thomas, Columbian staff writer

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A pair of controversial housing developments in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area have been blocked after a conservation group successfully argued in a quasi-judicial hearing that they were an attempt to sidestep land-use regulations.

On Thursday, Clark County Land Use Hearing Examiner Joe Turner issued a pair of decisions that denied applications from Simon Shi-Ning Yang and Mei Sheng Zhou to build single-family residences on agricultural lots in the Gorge where they stated they would raise a high-end breed of cattle.

In May, Clark County’s Department of Community Development approved applications from Yang and Zhou to build new residences on their respective 43-acre and 44-acre lots outside of Washougal. The lots are within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, a 292,500-acre stretch in Oregon and Washington protected by federal law, and are subject to land-use restrictions intended to keep them for agricultural use and ensure that any development is consistent with surrounding buildings.

To meet the agricultural requirements, Yang and Zhou indicated in their applications that they would use their land to get into the business of collecting and selling the embryos of Wagyu cows, a Japanese breed of cattle known for their marbled meat that’s prized by upscale restaurants.

Conservation group Friends of the Columbia Gorge appealed the applications, arguing that neither Yang nor Zhou is qualified to run an agricultural operation. Friends suggested that the two weren’t actively managing the property and that their proposed agricultural businesses wouldn’t meet the required $40,000 gross annual income threshold required under Scenic Area restrictions.

According to Turner’s decisions, LeAnne Bremer, a partner at Miller Nash Graham & Dunn LLP representing Yang and Zhou, argued that the proposed home size was consistent with other nearby residences and the new agricultural operations would benefit neglected farmland in the Gorge.

However, Turner ultimately sided with Friends, finding that the proposed agricultural operations wouldn’t meet the income requirements, the new residences would be incompatible with nearby development and their applications did not identify a source of groundwater.

Nathan Baker, senior staff attorney for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, said he welcomed the decision. He said that Zhou and Yang are wealthy Chinese executives in the semiconductor industry with tenuous ties to the property.

“It doesn’t make sense at all,” he said of their plans to take up farming described in their applications.

According to Baker, Zhou and Yang can appeal the decision to the Columbia River Gorge Commission.

In an email, Bremer wrote that she and her clients are evaluating their options.

“We are pleased that we prevailed on a number of the legal issues, but we are obviously disappointed in the result,” she wrote.