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News / Clark County News

State Supreme Court: Skamania County in violation of GMA

Ruling remands lawsuit back to Clark County Superior Court

By Eric Florip, Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter
Published: June 13, 2015, 12:00am

The state Supreme Court this week handed a victory to environmental advocates who argued that unzoned forestland in Skamania County is in violation of the Growth Management Act.

In an opinion issued Thursday, the court found that Skamania County is more than six years past its December 2008 deadline to review its natural resource land designations. The opinion largely sided with conservation groups Save Our Scenic Area and Friends of the Columbia Gorge, who had filed a lawsuit in 2012 challenging the county’s inaction.

That’s not the final word, however. The Supreme Court remanded the case back to Clark County Superior Court, where the lawsuit was originally filed.

“We still will continue to pursue this case and try to establish protections on forest lands for forest uses,” said Nathan Baker, staff attorney for Friends of the Columbia Gorge.

Large swaths of forestland in Skamania County are currently “unmapped” and thus vulnerable to unregulated development, advocates say. The case centers around 15,000 acres of privately owned forestland referred to as “free-for-all” areas at one point in the court’s opinion.

In 2007, Skamania County designated much of its private forestland as conservancy areas intended for the conservation and management of existing natural resources. At the same time, it declared a building moratorium on 15,000 acres of land as it considered zoning classifications there.

But the county continued extending the moratorium long after the 2008 review deadline came and went. In 2012, the county repealed the moratorium for all but 4,500 acres of the area. That’s when Save Our Scenic Area and Friends of the Columbia Gorge filed the lawsuit. The entire moratorium eventually lapsed.

Shortly after the moratorium was repealed, the county approved plans for the Whistling Ridge Energy Project, a wind farm just outside the Gorge scenic area boundary near Underwood. (A downsized version of the wind farm was later approved and upheld by the state, but never built.)

As part of its case, the county had argued that the plaintiffs’ challenge was untimely and should have been filed years earlier — an argument the Supreme Court rejected. The county effectively made the “unmapped” classification permanent in 2012 when it indicated its ordinances were no longer temporary, the court said.

Skamania County Prosecuting Attorney Adam Kick said the county was disappointed by the court’s opinion and is considering its options. The decision “upends several decades of precedent,” Kick said, particularly in allowing the claim to be filed under the state Planning Enabling Act. The court’s dissenting minority opinion echoed that sentiment.

Environmental advocates cheered the majority opinion.

“The time has come for the county to accept that it is legally obligated by state law to designate and protect forest lands for forest purposes,” Tom Drach, a Save Our Scenic Area board member and Skamania County resident, said in a released statement.

Almost 90 percent of Skamania County is either federal or state land. As a “partial planning” county, it is required by the Growth Management Act to designate and protect resource lands, including forests.

As the case returns to Clark County Superior Court, the plaintiffs will likely push for a schedule for the county to comply with the law, Baker said.

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Columbian Transportation & Environment Reporter