In the last public hearing before the Columbia Gorge River Commission adopts new land-use rules, environmentalists, businessmen, Native American tribal representatives, state and regional officials chimed in with criticisms and suggestions in a meeting in The Dalles on Feb. 24.
The meeting, before a packed room at the Discovery Center, lasted six hours. Issues ranged from logging restrictions to the size of wine-tasting rooms.
The revised Management Plan sets policies and regulation for all land use in the 292,500-acre Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, which encompasses six counties in Oregon and Washington. At last week's meeting, wine industry officials came out in force to object to a 500 square foot limitation on wine tasting rooms.
James Montone of Syncline Wine Cellars in Bingen said the limitation was "too repressive."
"Our current tasting room is 500 square feet, and we have to turn people away," he said.
Rob Bell, who has designs on purchasing Flerchinger Winery in Hood River, said the mid-Columbia area has a unique grape-growing climate, noting the area goes from rain forest to desert in a 40-mile stretch.
"It's the only place on the planet where you can grow Gewurztraminer to Syrah," he said.
Given that unique ability, Bell said it would be unfortunate for wineries to lose the ability to have large enough tasting rooms.
Lonnie Wright of The Dalles, who owns a vineyard management company, told the commission that a crowded tasting room would equate to a "less positive experience" for tourists who would come to the area to spend their money.
Steven Andersen, head of Cascade Planning Associates and a former planning director for Klickitat County, was among those who testified at the hearing. He said the Management Plan had turned into a "steamroller."
"What you ended up with in this draft still looks more like a steamroller than a vehicle to carry partners," Andersen said. "There are sections of the Management Plan that were not reviewed at all, contrary to your mandate in the Scenic Act to do so. You are not in compliance with the legislation that created you."
Andersen added that a new property rights group was being formed in response to certain adverse economic and social impacts of land use planning in the Gorge.
"I represent a group that is being organized with that very objective in mind: Advocates of Common Sense is a fledgling organization of property owners and their friends who advocate the exercise of common sense in land use planning," Andersen explained.
Meanwhile, Wasco County Planning Director Todd Cornett pushed for changes that he said would streamline the planning process for residents in Wasco County as well as eliminate paperwork.
For example, gravel and dirt roads that are to be paved without an expansion of the right of way still have to go through an expedited review, costing about $1,500 in staff time and a $365 permit fee.
"Gravel and dirt roads should be allowed to be paved without review as long as they stay within the existing travel lanes," Cornett told the commission.
Cornett also pointed out that agriculture fences, which require a full scenic review, should be permitted outright.
In addition, he said the 10-day comment period should be eliminated from the expedited review process.
Members of the group Friends of the Columbia River Gorge pushed to eliminate the possibility of clear-cuts in the Scenic Area, which are managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
"We need to prohibit all clear-cuts," said Nathan Baker, staff attorney for Friends. He said proposed 15-acre clear-cuts on non-federal forest land to allow for agricultural uses should be limited to a single acre.
At the same time, others said 15 acres was not enough for a viable agricultural operation.
Baker also told the commission that buffers around creeks should be increased from 200 to 300 feet in the Scenic Management Area, and from 100 to 150 feet in the General Management Area, which are the same requirements in the Northwest Forest Plan.
Friends of the Columbia River Gorge founder, Nancy Russell, said new rules only weakened the original Management Plan.
"It has never been suggested that the Gorge is less threatened with development than it was in 1980," she said. "It is more threatened than ever. This is the time to strengthen the Management Plan, not weaken it."
Commissioners have been working on the land-use changes for two years in attempts to iron out "problems and headaches" since the original plan was adopted, explained Gorge Commission Executive Director Martha Bennett in a recent press release.
Written testimony will continue to be taken on the revised plan until March 10. Commissioners plan to discuss the public input at their meeting on March 23, and final adoption of the revised plan is slated for April 27.