A local environmental organization and a group of residents challenging the legality of a revived mine have turned to a planning agency that oversees land-use regulations in the Columbia River Gorge.
Earlier this month, Friends of the Columbia Gorge and a group of east Clark County landowners both filed appeals with the Columbia River Gorge Commission, a bistate planning agency that oversees the implementation of the Gorge’s federal land-use laws. The target of their appeal is renewed mining activity at the Zimmerly gravel pit, located in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and subject to stringent land-use requirements.
“This is the largest ongoing land-use violation in the history of the National Scenic Area,” Nathan Baker, senior staff attorney for Friends of the Columbia Gorge, said in an email.
In 2017, the Nutter Corp., a Vancouver-based construction company, took over the lease of the Zimmerly mining pit and resumed operations. The renewed activity at the pit, located outside of Washougal, rankled neighbors who complained of noise and truck traffic.
It also caught the attention of Clark County code enforcement. Code compliance officers issued Nutter a notice indicating the firm did not have the proper permits and must cease activity. Nutter and Zimmerly appealed to the Clark County hearings examiner, an individual hired by the county to review its regulatory actions through a quasi-judicial process. In August, Hearings Examiner Joe Turner found that a permit issued by the state Department of Natural Resources in 1972, before establishment of the national scenic area, authorized the mining.
Turner’s decision refers to a land-use approval issued by the Gorge commission for the mine in 1993. Turner noted in his decision that he had no jurisdiction to interpret actions by the Gorge commission.
“He essentially punted that issue to the Gorge commission,” said Baker.
Baker said that the approval granted by the Gorge commission would be void if mining activity were discontinued for one continuous year or more. He said that his group and others have been asking Krystyna Wolniakowski, the commission’s executive director, to determine if the approval is still in effect and, if not, to use its enforcement powers to stop the mining.
Baker said that the most direct path to resolving the issue is for Wolniakowski to step in with her enforcement powers. If not, he said that he would proceed with the appeal to the Gorge commission, which he said would happen early next year.
The Gorge commission oversees National Scenic Area land-use regulations in six Gorge-area counties. Wolniakowski said that five counties (except Klickitat County) have adopted local ordinances implementing the National Scenic Area Management Plan.
She said that these counties, including Clark County, are the lead enforcement agencies of National Scenic Area regulations and are responsible for issuing applications and permits. The Gorge commission retains the power to interpret the act. Wolniakowski explained that the commission needs to remain impartial because its 13 members are responsible for hearing appeals of county enforcement actions.
“This is really a critical point,” she said.
Land-use lawyers Jamie Howsley, representing Zimmerly, and Steve Horenstein, representing Nutter, declined to comment.