The day was hot and the workshop was long. But the issue was big, and dozens turned out to discuss it.
On May 30, about 80 area residents flocked to White Salmon's Pioneer Center to offer their ideas regarding a proposed amendment to the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Management Plan. The session was hosted by the Columbia River Gorge Commission (CRGC).
Although the process was a general one, there was a specific project garnering most of the attention: a proposal to convert about 55 acres of the former Broughton Mill property near Underwood from a largely abandoned industrial site to a recreation resort.
"The amendment would apply to the conversion of the Broughton Mill industrial site to a recreation resort," read an excerpt from a section of the CRGC's "amendment discussion" outline. "Such an amendment would create a framework to allow, under certain conditions, a recreation resort, but would not approve any specific development."
The five-hour workshop started with an open house, featuring maps of the Broughton site and surrounding areas.
SDS President Jason Spadaro, one of the key backers behind the Broughton project, said he felt the process was moving slowly -- but at least it was moving.
"I am a little bit frustrated by the pace of progress," Spadaro said on Monday. "When we started this process, we tried to address all of the issues and make sure we included local communities and interested parties. We've gone through about 18 months of front-loading this process, and for the Gorge Commission staff members to have to go back and identify the same issues feels a little repetitive. But they have to follow their own process. I understand it's necessary. They can't rely on our process."
In its latest incarnation, the Broughton redevelopment proposal calls for using 55 acres out of the 260 contiguous acres owned at and around the site.
"Development will be limited to the former industrial area," Spadaro explained.
Spadaro, who noted that the Broughton resort plan is at a "conceptual" stage only, said the proposal envisions a total of 245 vacation units, including a mix of cabins, townhouses, and condominiums. If approved, the Broughton project would also offer a "broad range of recreational amenities," including possibly creating more windsurfing launch sites to help address crowding issues.
"There will be very limited retail," Spadaro added. "There would be a cafe/pub, maybe a general store for resort guests, and a restaurant sized for the guests who stay there. It will be intentionally minimized."
According to the CRGC staff, more than 130 comments were submitted through written cards during the workshop. Themes in the comments included concerns about traffic congestion and safety, environmental impacts, economic benefits versus negative impacts, and possible demands on public services and infrastructure. A number of participants questioned the need for the plan amendment.
"There were a lot of issues raised, and it will be interesting to see how the Gorge Commission digests all those issues," Spadaro commented.
The organizers pledged that a verbatim record of the comment cards would be available for review on the CRGC's Web site.
Opponents of the resort plan expressed fear that the project would bring a major change that could "alter life in the Gorge as we know it forever."
"As a U.S. citizen and taxpayer, I am paying the wages of those who sit on the Gorge Commission, and I expect that they will not do favors for private parties and politicians," said White Salmon resident Michael Stewart. "As a member of Friends of the Gorge, I am concerned with the overall appearance of a modern resort with two-and-a-half story condos outside an urban area."
The next step in the CRGC's deliberate process is for an amendment proposal to be drafted. That is expected sometime this summer. It will be several months until public hearings are held on the final amendment, and there will be several steps beyond that, including concurrence by the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and an application review process for plans for any specific project.
One of the people who will help decide whether to approve any amendment is incoming Columbia River Gorge Commissioner Carl McNew.
"It was fascinating to hear the different points of view from the players on the panels," McNew said. "From a standpoint of interactivity, they did a good job. The planners from the Gorge Commission were picking up and reading comment cards. They were busy; they got quite a few."
Some attendees were clearly dissatisfied about what they saw as inadequate opportunities to voice their comments verbally.
"Since they made us sit for five hours and listen to them, they could at least give the public back four hours of comment. To make sure that it is not a scam, the public should be given microphones and have the comments, questions, and answers recorded, officially on the record. The audience was never handed a microphone, and purposely excluded from official records," said Stewart. "By failing to seek true public input, CRGC makes the appearance of doing favors for the timber industry and caving in to political pressure and,in turn, not taking care of their responsibilities in upholding the standards of the Scenic Act."
Gorge Commission Executive Director Jill Arens pointed out that there would be more opportunity to speak out at the June 11 meeting, with a public comment period from 5 p.m.-6:30 p.m.
"While we achieved one goal of gaining more information to help refine issues and potential impacts, we also heard clearly from a number of participants regarding their dissatisfaction with the workshop format and their desire to speak directly to the group," said Arens.
Brian Litt, a planner with CRGC, said the commission will ensure people have the opportunity to fully discuss the amendment and address impacts at future meetings.
"We understand some people were frustrated with the process, and hopefully those people will show up and express themselves," Litt said. "We recognize the level of interest and passion about this topic, and we want to make sure people have the opportunity to discuss the issues."
Spadaro said he is hopeful the Gorge Commission staff will give a green light to allowing submission of the application for the Broughton project soon.
"Hopefully the Gorge Commission won't alter the time schedule they have outlined. I'm hoping we'll be able to submit in the next month or two. That's the good news. By the end of the year, we will know one way or another," Spadaro said. "We need support from those who see the economic benefits of this. Hopefully, they will stand up with us and tell the commissioners."
The second public workshop will again be at the Pioneer Center in White Salmon. It is scheduled for Monday, June 11, starting at 4:45 p.m. and continuing until 8:30 p.m.