For the second time in a month, the date for when the White Salmon City Council will decide whether to give a thumbs up or thumbs down to a proposed annexation has been pushed back.
John Gotts, a White Salmon property owner and co-owner of a Portland-based software company, wants to annex 48.7 acres of land he owns into the city of White Salmon. The property straddles the Dry Creek Canyon in the hills above Bingen.
The City Council had been expected to take a vote on the proposal at its Feb. 16 meeting, but the decision was pushed back, first to March 2, and later to April 20.
"We need to do a more thorough job of analyzing the site for potential impacts to both Bingen and White Salmon," explained Wil Keyser, director of White Salmon's Public Works Department.
Keyser said he was forming a "special advisory team" to look at all aspects of possible future development on the property. The team includes professional experts including: a geo-technical engineer, a wildfire/fisheries biologist, engineers from the Washington Department of Ecology, and the Department of Natural Resources, law enforcement and emergency medical officials, planners from the Columbia River Gorge Commission, the Klickitat County Planning Department and the White Salmon Planning Commission, and Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel.
"While annexation and subdivision are two separate and distinct processes ... with regards to this unique property they are inseparable," Keyser wrote in a memo explaining his intent to examine the annexation plan. "This action to defer the public hearing is necessary given the potential and the magnitude of issues and concerns that must be addressed."
Some members of the City Council questioned the need for the delays.
"We didn't see this level of concern with the Ball annexation," said council member Richard Marx, referring to the relatively swift action to annex a 1.06-acre parcel on El Camino Real recently.
Keyser said the Gotts property was unique.
"We'd be remiss in not giving you all the information. This would be the biggest annexation in the history of White Salmon," Keyser said.
Addressing the ongoing controversy about the annexation proposal and concerns raised by Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel in a recent commentary in The Enterprise, Keyser stressed that the decision to conduct further reviews were already in the works.
"I want you to know our decision to slow this down came prior to Mayor Prigel's guest editorial," Keyser said. "The council has the right to know the intent of the developer. That's critical information before you vote on annexation."
Councilor Susan Gookin joined Marx in questioning why the vote could not go forward.
"I don't understand why we have to postpone the annexation decision," Gookin said.
Keyser responded that the council deserved to know about the potential risks before the property was annexed, but Gookin was not convinced.
"The risks only apply if there is a subdivision," Gookin said.
"What does the information have to do with annexation?" Marx added. "The property is there now. If we annex the property, it still sits there."
"It seems to me prudent to have all the information before voting. If you don't want it, you can vote right now," Keyser responded.
Council member Susan Benedict, however, said she welcomed Keyser's efforts to consider possible impacts.
"I want the information," said Benedict.
Keyser said he would have all the information ready for the council no later than the April 20 council meeting.
The city's attorney, Deborah Phillips, warned the council members that once annexation was approved, whatever regulations were on the books at the time of the annexation would be all the city could follow in deciding whether to accept a subdivision plan.
"I suggest Wil's course is very prudent," Phillips said. "Because even if you don't like a subdivision plan, if it meets the criteria of your existing zoning ordinance, then it needs to be approved."
Mayor Linda Jones said she supported additional review.
"I believe Wil's doing the right thing," Jones said. "The potential impacts could affect not only White Salmon, but Bingen as well. We have an obligation to look at all the issues. It puts Mr. Gotts a little behind, but at the same time, he wants to do things right too."
After the meeting, Gotts said he understands why the city is taking an especially close look at his annexation proposal.
"I don't blame them for slowing this down to make sure it's done correctly. I respect that," he said. "I'm not happy about it, but I understand and respect that. White Salmon knows the rules. Wil Keyser and the mayor and the people of that town are embracing the idea of development done correctly. They understand that this is for the town to decide how to develop, not for me, the builder."