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Oregon Legislators Scrutinize Gorge Commission

Legislative subcommittee wants changes in CRGC, Scenic Area procedures

Gorge News Report

An Oregon legislative subcommittee offered 19 recommendations for changes in the way the state administers the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Act -- including the creation of a standing oversight legislative committee.

Property rights advocates, as well as conservationists, agree with a number of the recommendations. However, Gorge property rights groups say Oregon is trying to fix "something that is terribly broken." They want a major overhaul.

The conservation group Friends of the Columbia Gorge claims some of the recommendations add yet another level of bureaucracy that Oregon can't afford.

The Subcommittee on Columbia River Gorge Commission Review, under the Joint Interim Committee on Natural Resources, developed the findings and related recommendations from public testimony at three hearings in the Gorge last year.

State Sen. Ted Ferrioli, subcommittee co-chair, said there was "overwhelming" support for the National Scenic Act, but residents -- including some who support it -- are critical of a "cumbersome" process and perceive it to be unfair.

Suggested changes in the findings and recommendations address such things as ensuring consistency in the development application process, litigation, the need for adequate funding and economic and recreational development, and setting benchmarks and collecting data to track the success of administering the Scenic Act.

The mandate of the federal Scenic Act is carried out through a bi-state compact agreement between Oregon and Washington. In addition to creating a standing legislative oversight committee in Oregon, Ferrioli and fellow committee members would like to see a bi-state committee established to address conflicting Oregon and Washington land use statutes. The bi-state committee would also be charged with developing a process for appeals to be heard by neutral third parties instead of the Gorge Commission; looking into streamlining the U.S. Forest Service's federal land acquisitions program and including general management area, as well as special management area, in the buyout; informing Congress and state legislatures of specific needs for increased funding; and working with tribes and counties to develop better strategies for protecting Native American cultural and historic resources.

Leaders of Friends of the Gorge said they support some recommendations, such as compensation for land owners for stricter regulations and alternative dispute resolutions. But Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends, said lawmakers are missing the major question: Is the Gorge Commission fulfilling the purpose of the Scenic Act, and is it providing economic development consistent with protection of all resources as mandated by Congress?

"The jury's still out on that one," Lang said.

Additionally, Friends sees establishment of the legislative oversight and bi-state committees as adding another level of bureaucratic red tape to the process of Gorge protection.

Three representatives from property rights advocacy groups -- Bobbie Miller of Columbia Gorge United, Janis Sauter of Gorge Reality, and Rita Swyers of Oregonians in Action -- said the Oregon subcommittee's findings and recommendations "would be helpful," but they fear that Oregon keeps trying to fix something that is terribly broken.

They strongly support the recommendation to create a standing legislative oversight committee, but contend a flaw exists in the current structure of the county- and governor-appointed Gorge Commission. They would like to see an elected body that would answer directly to the voters.

Leaders of the three groups said they were concerned with the amount of land taken off the tax rolls and how it will affect county incomes. They believe the federal government should replace the income and pay the counties for the loss in tax revenue beyond the eight years as laid out in the current federal land acquisition plan.

"The intent of this law is to preserve the beauty of the Gorge for all of the people of the U.S. and should not be a financial burden to residents, the six counties, and the two states where the Gorge is located," wrote representatives from the property rights groups, in response to the Oregon subcommittee's recommendations.

The three groups worked together to conduct a survey of Gorge property owners as a way to create a record of what they regarded as land use violations occurring since implementation of the Scenic Act. They presented the information during recent public hearings on the Columbia River Gorge Commission, and are pushing for an impartial agent to review and correct what they said are past violations of the law by the commission.

Washington State Sen. Jim Honeyford, who was present during some of the Oregon public hearings, said he probably won't introduce any legislation this session. But his future plans include working with the Oregon Legislature to make changes to the bi-state compact to provide that land use decisions be appealed in the state where they originated.

As with property rights advocates, Honeyford said he would like the Gorge Commission to be an elected body, representing people of their county. Ferrioli doesn't support this idea, and explained that people now have indirect influence through their elected County Commissioners and state governors who appoint the Gorge Commissioners.

Gorge Commission Executive Director Martha Bennett said the subcommittee's findings were "fair and well-reasoned."

In speaking about using alternative dispute resolution, instead of hearings and litigation, Bennett said, "We've been trying to do that."

She added that 50 percent of the cases in the past year have been resolved.

"It doesn't mean we will settle every time, but we'll attempt it before it ends up in a hearing," she explained.

Bennett said the Scenic Act distributed power widely to different agencies, which is a strong network when it's working well. She said there needs to be a greater recognition of the role other agencies play.

She added that, over time, the process has gotten better in applying Gorge regulations of the Management Plan, and the commission staff knows a lot more now about how to work with county planners.

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