With a 4-0 vote on May 4, the White Salmon City Council accepted Stonecliff Development's "notice of intent" to annex 48.7 acres into White Salmon.
The action marks a fresh start for the proposed annexation, which has been dogged by controversy since it was first proposed in early 2004.
"We're just going through the process," said Mayor Linda Jones. "It's a lot of work. I'm pleased the notice of intent was approved, and we go on from there."
In April, the city and representatives of Stonecliff Development, LLC, decided to shelve previous efforts and go back to the beginning with a new application.
At the start of the May 4 council meeting, Mayor Jones informed those attending the session that the public hearing portion of the session was being canceled.
"We're not required to have a public hearing for a notice of intent," Jones explained. "There will not be a hearing for four to six weeks."
The council accepted the notice of intent with a key condition: that the city and Stonecliff can complete a "successful negotiation with Stonecliff of a development agreement to set forth the standards and mitigation requirements for the real property." The document specified that the agreement will, in part, set "residential and non-residential densities and intensities, including building sizes."
Deborah Phillips, the city's attorney, pointed out that there will be public hearings regarding the development agreement.
"There will be at least one, maybe two, to consider a development agreement," Phillips said.
Despite the new start, however, the same concerns that have plagued the proposed development were aired before the council acted to accept the notice of intent.
Before the council's vote, Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel addressed the White Salmon City Council at last week's May 4 meeting. In recent months, Prigel has taken a leading role in pointing out potential problems related to development of the property, which straddles Dry Creek in the hills above Bingen.
"This is a not a run of the mill annexation," Prigel said. "It's very large, and represents a community one-third or larger of the existing city of Bingen. It's a unique and potentially dangerous site. Much of the site is 40 percent slope."
Prigel said White Salmon's current ordinances are inadequate to address a large development on the hillside.
"The city would have very little leeway to modify or require restrictions," Prigel explained. "Evacuation routes are one example of that. The site is viewed as dangerous for proposed evacuation. Fire danger would be severe on an August day with 40 mph winds, and hiking trails do not cut it. Now is the time to consider whether your ordinances are adequate."
Prigel called on the council to modify the boundary of the proposed development to omit the steeper slopes at the eastern part of the parcel.
Randy Prince, a land use attorney from Vancouver who was there to represent Stonecliff Development, spoke in favor of the annexation plan.
Prince said there were two key considerations involved in annexations.
"One, make sure the development complies with the regulations in place, and two, to make sure all impacts from a proposed development are mitigated," he explained. "For this project, the issues you are going to be most concerned about are adequate sewer, water, road structure, wildlife, geo-technical aspects of steep slopes. Those are the types of things dealt with through the subdivision process. However, we could address the framework through the annexation process."
Prince said he hoped the City Council would accept the notice of annexation, and allow Stonecliff to work to find solutions to the issues.
"I can't tell you today what the solutions are," Prince said. "The development can provide the mechanism to solve the issues. Hopefully we'll come up with a development agreement to adequately mitigate impacts you might have."
Jones said no dates have yet been set for public hearings on the plan.
"It's going to depend on how long it takes to develop the development agreement. Hopefully within the next two months," she explained. "We are very adamant that we do this process the right way. It won't be annexed in without proper steps to make sure there are no problems. We need to be sure all the concerns can be worked out to the satisfaction of White Salmon and Bingen."
Council member Susan Benedict asked how the city could enforce any development agreement it made with the property owners.
"Generally there are bonding requirements recorded, which would be binding on subsequent property owners," Phillips responded.
Wil Keyser, director of the city's Public Works Department, said there would be ample opportunity for public input on the proposed annexation and the anticipated development agreement.
"There will be two, three, maybe four public hearings involved with this," said Keyser.
According to Keyser, the development agreement would incorporate terms acceptable to both parties. If the agreement is not satisfactory to the City Council, the council can reject the annexation. The petitioner would also have the right to withdraw the petition.
"The negotiations of requirements and responsibilities have to be what both parties can live with," Keyser explained. "The concerns raised are very serious to the city of Bingen and to the city of White Salmon. We'll mitigate them if we can. There will be an extensive negotiation process."
Gookin asked when the public would be able to offer their concerns.
"If someone has concerns, they can provide them to the city at any time," Keyser said.