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New Gorge Commission director brings optimism to White Salmon

Martha Bennett, the next executive director of the Columbia River gorge Commission, summed up her week on the job in White Salmon.

"So far, so good. All the crises were last week." That is how Martha Bennett, the new executive director of the Columbia River Gorge Commission, summed up her first week on the job in White Salmon.

Bennett, who started work as CRGC director on July 2, comes in just a few days after the Washington Supreme Court handed the Gorge Commission what is arguably its biggest legal setback in many years.

On June 28, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Gorge Commission had no authority to invalidate land use decisions made by Skamania County officials regarding the siting of a private home owned by Brian and Jody Bea. The court stressed, however, that the decision was based on the fact that the county's appeals period had expired before CRGC officials sought to intervene.

The Gorge Commission wanted the house, in Prindle, relocated due to scenic impacts and other issues.

Bennett will inherit the fallout of that decision, although she had nothing to do with the case.

"None of us know yet how it'll play out in the future," Bennett said. "The decision took out one approach, but the court spelled out others ways to address issues. We're not toothless, we just need to rethink how we handle enforcement cases."

However, Bennett took a positive slant on the court's ruling.

"It's a great chance to step back and see how the process works," she explained. "We don't have the staff power to review building permits in six counties. One question we have to answer is, how do we use resources most effectively. We're not a very large agency. How do we make sure we're all playing the right roles."

She pointed out that the ongoing Management Plan Review process has provided some suggestions in terms of how the CRGC might revamp the oversight process.

"Some aspects of the plan clearly are not working. We'll analyze the issues and see how they need to be modified," Bennett said.

The CRGC office in White Salmon is staffed by eight full-time employees besides Bennett. According to Bennett, the entire staff -- including herself -- are learning from the feedback. She added that she is very pleased with the response to the ongoing Management Plan Review process, which she named as one of her top priorities.

"We just concluded the first part of the public outreach, and took over 1,400 comments -- 800 at meetings, and another 600 in the mail," she said.

The CRGC is now in the process of sorting through the comments and grouping them. The next step will be for the commission to develop a plan for working out those issues.

Another of her goals is to foster harmonious relationships with county officials throughout the National Scenic Area.

"Claire (Puchy, the previous CRGC director) did some good work to build strong relationships with the six counties. I want to make sure we build on that," she said.

Another key issue Bennett is tracking are the air quality hearings going on. At stake is what language will be adopted as far as the airshed in the Scenic Area.

"I think the public has raised the correct issues," Bennett pointed out. "Air quality represents a tricky balancing act. We don't want to regulate too stringently to where you hurt businesses. And what do you do, knowing much of the pollution comes from Portland? All those questions are yet to be answered."

Before being hired as the CRGC's executive director, Bennett served three years as the assistant city manager for the city of Milwaukie, Ore., in the Portland metro area. Before that, she was the assistant to the city manager in Albany, Ore.

Bennett says she is happy to be engaged in handling the challenging issues confronting the CRGC and its role in managing the Scenic Area.

"It's obviously a unique agency, in a unique time. I'm excited about being part of the transition," Bennett said. "I believe difficult things are the only things worth doing."

Allen Bell, senior planner for the CRGC, said his first impressions of Bennett were very favorable.

"It's only been a week, but I'd say Martha's diverse background makes her well-qualified to help lead the commission on the tasks we'll be facing," Bell said. "She has strong management and planning skills, and years of experience with public involvement and outreach. Those qualities will work well in this position."

Bennett has a house in Milwaukie that is on the market. She wants to move to Hood River with her husband, Jeff, but they'll defer the move until they can sell the house.

"I'll commute until the house sells," she said. "That's an hour and 10 minutes driving, and I don't like it. I don't get to meet people in the grocery store that way."

Although noting that there is never certainty about what the future will bring, Bennett said she is taking a long-range view about her work as CRGC director.

"There is plenty of interesting work for the foreseeable future. I don't think I'll spend a day being bored," she said.


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