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Lyle citizens consider expansion of urban boundaries

Public meeting designed to take comments

With concern that the future of Lyle was at stake, a public gathering at the Lyle Lions Club Community Center was held on Oct. 16. The meeting, arranged by the Klickitat County Board of Commissioners, was designed to take comment on the feasibility of expanding the urban boundaries of Lyle. The objective is to give the community more room to grow.

Key questions to be addressed included where, how, and whether to try to expand Lyle's urban boundaries.

Approximately 60 citizens attended the forum, and there appeared to be unanimous agreement that Lyle was in a box and required more land if the town were to survive.

Because Lyle is within the National Scenic Area, the county would need to apply to the Columbia River Gorge Commission for approval to expand the community's boundaries beyond its existing limits.

County Commissioner Don Struck presented the county's planning consultant, who offered an analysis of Lyle's predicament.

"The intent of our work is to do a third-party review of growth in the Lyle region. We look at population, jobs, and spending over the last 10-20 years, then project it into the future," explained Todd Chase, a senior economist and planner with Otak, a planning and design firm hired by the county to address the technical aspects of expanding Lyle's urban boundaries.

"We've basically looked at the regional market and at Klickitat County, to determine Lyle's ability to compete for economic development in the future," Chase said.

Otak's forecast projected that over a 20-year period, Lyle needs between 50-100 acres of land for housing; two to four acres for commercial retail and office buildings; and one to two acres of additional light industrial land.

"Population growth drives demand for housing, and housing demand creates income that supports retail and tourism," Chase said. "We're looking at 179-357 potential new dwellings in Lyle over the next 20 years. Some of that need could be met by knocking down old houses or sheds on underused land, but the majority would require vacant land where water and sewer infrastructure could be developed."

Chase said 29 acres of vacant residential land currently existed in Lyle.

In a 24-page document, Otak described the "market overview" in these terms: "The Lyle Urban Area is surrounded by an area designated by the Scenic Area Act as general management area (GMA). GMAs are predominantly devoted to agricultural and forestry uses, but also contain scattered areas of pre-existing residential development. The Scenic Area Act ... has effectively constrained development to readily available vacant lands in urban areas and areas adjacent to the Scenic Area. In short, relatively little development has occurred in the Scenic Area, leaving the focus for development in the urban areas."

In another section, the study summarized land demand in Lyle as follows: "Current growth trends indicate an immediate need for more vacant buildable land than is available today in Lyle. The trends demonstrate that moderate growth will continue in Lyle for years to come as long as a vacant and competitive land supply is provided."

Chase noted that one of the major constraints to the community was the predominance of slope of more than 30 percent, where building would not be feasible.

However, Chase pointed out that Lyle could be like the "heights" areas of Hood River or Wishram.

"Once you get over the ridge, there could be a whole new community," he said.

One citizen questioned whether the community could expand to the west or south.

"There is property owned by the Trust for Public Land to the south, and Forest Service land to the west. Both are developable. Lyle Point was considered, but at this time it's a constrained parcel and less likely to be developed over the next 20 years," Chase said. "If Lyle Point was developable, it would lower our number (of needed acreage) by 24 acres or so."

Curt Dreyer, director of the Klickitat County Planning Department, said it was not realistic to look west.

"I don't think the Forest Service would give it up," Dreyer explained. "It would be crossing a wild and scenic river corridor with utilities, and it would not satisfy our need for future building sites in Lyle."

Some in the audience questioned why Klickitat County needed to deal with the Gorge Commission at all, since the county never signed on to the management plan to administer the NSA.

"Klickitat County never signed on, so why do we have to play their games?" asked one resident.

"We can debate the National Scenic Area all night, but we're here tonight to try to fix it and make it better," responded Commissioner Struck.

"Regardless of how we feel about the law, the Gorge Commission has jurisdiction. That's the way the process is set up. The only way legally to take jurisdiction is using the process to our advantage," added Jill Long, an attorney with Foster Pepper & Shefelman, a legal firm representing Klickitat County.

Not everyone accepted the premise that the Gorge Commission had jurisdiction, however.

"You keep mentioning that that's the law. But there are numerous things the Gorge Commission never abided by," said Lyle resident Janis Sauter. "Has their jurisdiction ever been contested? Have you challenged the jurisdiction issue? I believe we need to challenge the Gorge Commission."

Lyle resident Oren Johnson pointed out that the central issue was gaining room for Lyle to expand.

"I helped spearhead efforts to develop Lyle Point, and was terribly disappointed when that fell through," Johnson said. "I'd be the first to stand here and say, `get rid of the Gorge Commission.' This has nothing to do with that. The only way Lyle can survive is to have view lots and stick-built homes and taxes. Without that, we're cooked. We need to seriously consider the importance of expanding Lyle's growth area."

Johnson said he owned 138 acres north of Lyle that he couldn't develop because of National Scenic Area restrictions. He explained that he wanted to find a way to allow the community to make use of the property for future growth.

"We have two choices: Try to keep as much property for Lyle as possible, or sell it to the Forest Service or Trust for Public Lands or Nature Conservancy and take it off the tax rolls," he explained.

Barbara Sexton, a member of the Lyle Community Council, urged the county to find a way to allow Lyle to grow.

"You must fight for our land. We have to retain some land for our future or we're done," Sexton said.

However, others believed that negotiating with the Gorge Commission on this issue was equivalent to signing on to the management plan. Sauter appealed to Commissioner Struck to look at the larger issues involved in the constraints Lyle was facing.

"The county has not signed on to the management plan, nor were the land use ordinances ever concurred with by the Secretary of Agriculture, as required by law," said Sauter. "I applaud you and [County Commissioner] Joan Frey for not signing on to this legislation. But if you go through with this process, you'll in effect be signing on. The projected growth is not representative of what this town could have been if we'd been allowed to expand like we were promised. The county can be either part of the problem or part of the solution. I urge you to challenge the Gorge Commission. I hope you will do your job, Don, as a County Commissioner and challenge this."

At least two other citizens agreed that it would be unwise to deal with the Gorge Commission.

"This is a big ploy to get rid of Lyle," one man said. "They're not going to let you expand one bit. It's a big joke. Capitalism works on expansion. If we can't expand, we're dead meat. Then they'll go to the next town and the next town and do the same thing, until we get people with guts to tell them to stick it. I'm tired of the bottom line of the County Commissioners not taking a real stand. Our county has not signed on. That's got to mean something. We're being squeezed out by ridiculous rules and regulations. When are the County Commissioners going to stand up and say `no'?"

Another resident said he saw it the same way.

"You need to realize the Gorge Commission has an agenda -- whether stated or unstated, written or unwritten -- to get rid of as much humanity as possible and intimidate. I support getting more land but I question whether by so doing you legitimize the whole management plan itself, which is patently illegal," added another resident.

Martin Huffman, superintendent of the Lyle School District, said it was important for the county to get on the record what the community wanted the expanded boundaries to be.

"Send a message to the Gorge Commissioners where we want this to go, with a list of properties we want to be developed," Huffman said. "Our school district has seen a steady decline in enrollment. A definite message needs to be put together that says, `this is what we want. This is the property we want.' Let's get it going."

Toward the end of the meeting, Commissioner Struck said he wanted to respond to some of the comments he'd heard during the evening.

"I've lived here for almost 50 years. I fought the National Scenic Area for three years before it came into being, shoulder to shoulder with some in this room," Struck said. "I resent being told we're not fighters. We are fighters, by God. But you have to be realistic. You can't bite off the whole enchilada. They'll break us."

After the meeting, Chase said he was pleased with the turnout.

"There were no surprises in terms of some of the comments made," Chase said. "But the community needs to figure out if they want to work within the system or try to create some new system that works better for them. The community is beginning to form a consensus on how to proceed."

Chase said that if the community and the county decide to move forward with a boundary expansion application, it would go to the Gorge Commission sometime in spring 2004.

"Once we have decisions as to the boundaries, we'll submit it and it would be on the Gorge Commission's docket for a hearing sometime in the spring," he explained.


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