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Line controversy zips into Clark County

Troubles for owner of zip-line attraction began in Skamania

By , Columbian Health Reporter
Published:
3 Photos
Customers and tour guides meet on a platform after taking turns on the four zip lines set-up in Washougal.
Customers and tour guides meet on a platform after taking turns on the four zip lines set-up in Washougal. The four lines range in length from 200 to 700 feet and are suspended 60 to 80 feet above ground. Photo Gallery

A Washougal resident operating a zip-line attraction is once again running into problems with county officials.

Derek Hoyte’s troubles began last year when Skamania County discovered he was operating six zip lines without permits on 83 acres of land he owned in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Hoyte was fined $1,000 and jailed for five days in August 2009 for violating the county’s order to stop operating the public tours. He was released from jail once the lines were removed.

But about a year ago, Hoyte started Heritage Farms Canopy Tours and installed four zip lines on his five acres at 3618 S.E. 327th Ave. in Washougal.

The move sparked a whole new set of troubles for Hoyte — this time in Clark County.

Hoyte installed the lines without obtaining any permits from Clark County. Code Enforcement Coordinator Donna Goddard sent Hoyte two letters — one May 21, the other July 23 — informing Hoyte he was operating a nonpermitted activity and asking him to discontinue operations until the proper permits were obtained.

Goddard said recreational activities, such as zip lines, are typically allowed on rurally zoned property such as Hoyte’s but only after approval from Clark County. Private recreational activities, home businesses and even temporary uses require permits, she said.

To begin the permitting process, Hoyte would need to obtain a conditional use permit. From there, an inspection would determine if additional permits and conditions would be necessary, Goddard said.

However, Hoyte never applied for any county permits and continued to operate the zip lines, even posting advertisements on the website Craigslist and photos of visitors on Facebook. The tours were still operating this week as a group took a ride Tuesday afternoon.

So on Sept. 1, Clark County ordered Hoyte to stop operating the zip-line tours within 10 business days or face a fine of $250 per day. Hoyte has since filed an appeal and a hearing likely will take place in late October.

Hoyte, 47, said he is trying to work with the county and will “presumably work on the permit process” while waiting for his hearing.

“We’re fully cooperating with the county, and I have been since they first contacted me about their concerns,” Hoyte said in a phone interview Tuesday morning.

“We have no problem getting the permit they want us to get,” he added.

Hoyte said he could continue operating the zip lines until the hearing. But Goddard said continuing the tours after today’s deadline would violate the county order.

“No penalties will accrue during the appeal period; however, that does not give Mr. Hoyte permission to continue his unpermitted activity during the appeal period,” Goddard said in an e-mail correspondence with The Columbian.

Two sides

Hoyte said he contacted the county before putting up zip lines and was told he didn’t need a permit. The county only became concerned when it learned he was using the lines commercially and when neighbors and others started filing complaints, he said.

Goddard, however, said she does not know of any circumstance in which zip lines would be allowed without a permit.

While Hoyte told The Columbian he plans to obtain the conditional use permit, his communications with the county have differed.

Goddard spoke with Hoyte once or twice on the phone and in-person on Sept. 1, the day he received the notice and order, Goddard said.

“I’ve repeatedly explained the need for a conditional use permit for the zip-line activity. He has repeatedly explained why he does not think he needs a permit,” she said. “The county and Mr. Hoyte appear to have a difference of opinion on the regulation of his zip-line operation.”

In an e-mail to Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Lori Volkman, who represents the county in the prosecution of land-use violations, Hoyte outlined the reasons for filing an appeal to the order.

Hoyte describes the zip lines as agri-tourism on his family farm and claims farm tours, whether on a hay wagon, walking tour or zip line, are “simply a way to make agriculture more sustainable” and don’t require permits.

“The seasonal accessory farm tours in question on this farm are no different in principle or practice then [sic] a walking farm tour through a corn field,” he wrote.

In Skamania County, Hoyte also claimed his zip lines were used for agricultural operations. He said the lines provided visitors to his U-pick pine cone farm with transportation across the ranch.

The 5 acres Hoyte owns in Washougal has an orchard with apple trees and a few peach trees. Hoyte said Tuesday he hopes to expand the farm operations by acquiring an adjacent 10 acres of riverfront property.

The county, however, does not believe the zip-line tours are agricultural and therefore are not exempt, Goddard said.

Business expansion?

Hoyte’s zip-line tour consists of four lines suspended 60 to 80 feet above the ground. Two of the lines are 700 feet long, one is 350 feet and the other is 200 feet. The course takes riders through the canopies of fir trees and offers views of the Washougal River and the orchard.

Hoyte has obtained an amusement ride operating permit from the state Department of Labor and Industries for the zip lines, spokeswoman Elaine Fischer said. A safety inspection and proof of $1 million liability insurance are required to obtain the operating permit, she said.

Hoyte said he hopes to expand his business, despite filing for bankruptcy last month. Hoyte identified $16.9 million in liabilities in the bankruptcy paperwork and said his year-to-date 2010 income was about $33,000. The liabilities include vehicle loans, mortgages, deficiency balances on auto loans (repossessed vehicles), credit card purchases and deficiency balances of foreclosed properties.

Still, Hoyte has begun the permitting process for his 83 acres in Skamania County and said he plans to continue working to obtain the necessary permits for a zip-line attraction there. He wants to build a suspension bridge and reinstall the zip lines on the property.

However, the U.S. Forest Service is currently investigating whether Hoyte violated a conservation easement on the property when he installed the lines in the past, spokeswoman Jen Kevil said. The easement restricts the land use to agricultural.

Skamania County Prosecutor Peter Banks said Hoyte still needs an anthropological review of the land to finish the permit process. That review is done by the Forest Service.

Despite Hoyte’s past troubles in Skamania County, he insists he will continue to work cooperatively with Clark County to obtain the necessary permits.

“I did not want to go through the same hassles I did in the Gorge,” he said.

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

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Columbian Health Reporter