The proposed Broughton destination resort facility west of Underwood now has some major momentum.
On April 8, members of the Columbia River Gorge Commission (CRGC) voted 10-2 to approve an amendment of the National Scenic Area's Management Plan that creates policies and guidelines for a new review use -- the recreation resort -- in the "commercial recreation" land use designation.
Proponents of the Broughton project believe the ruling will allow planning for the resort to proceed.
"This is not exactly what we hoped for, but something we can work with," said Jason Spadaro, president of SDS Lumber Co. and a partner in the Broughton resort proposal. "Obviously we're really pleased the Gorge Commission has seen an opportunity for these enhancements in the Scenic Area. This was the critical first step. Nothing else could happen if not for this decision."
The CRGC summarized the key points of the amendment that was approved as follows:
Requires any proposed resort development to conform to numerous standards and demonstrate that it will protect and enhance scenic, cultural, natural, and recreation resources at the old mill site. It limits the bulk of resort development to the "existing industrial complex," and requires that it be visually subordinate from Gorge key viewing areas, and compatible with surrounding areas regarding impacts to traffic and public services;
Adopts specific requirements for units, limiting their use to short-term occupancy rather than residential use. Amendment requires overnight accommodations be oriented to short-term use and limits commercial activities at a future resort to those directly serving the needs of guests to help support businesses in nearby urban areas. Restrictions include a requirement that no party may occupy a unit for more than 45 days in any 90-day period;
Clarified wording in the amendment regards requirements for recreation resource and enhancement plans, including provisions that require recreation developments at the resort to be accessible to the public. In addition, the commission added a requirement for the bonding of required site cleanup and completion of resource enhancements identified in the resort master plan.
Tom Ascher, a planner with the Columbia River Gorge Commission, said the amendment resolved several key issues.
"One of the big questions was how to orient units so they were not just used as motels, but also were not for people to live in long-term," Ascher said. "This was the compromise position."
Ascher pointed out that there is no specific cap on how many units there can be, but the designers of the proposed resort will be limited as to where they can be built. The size of the resort will be restricted to where the existing industrial buildings are within the industrial area of the old Broughton mill facility.
"Rather than picking a number of units to allow, they said we can reconfigure the existing footprint," Spadaro said. "It's reasonable. It's logical."
Spadaro added that the stipulation that people cannot live in the housing units more than 45 days out of any 90-day period is not a deal-breaker.
"It's not ideal, but we can work with it," Spadaro said.
Opponents of the Broughton resort proposal reacted strongly to the CRGC's vote.
"By its action today, the Gorge Commission has abandoned its duty to protect the Columbia Gorge," said Michael Lang, conservation director for Friends of the Columbia Gorge. "The commission has weakened the rules for one developer to allow urban scale development on scenic area lands, contrary to the purposes of the National Scenic Area Act."
The Friends organization also pointed out that the amendment does not include any language requiring the cleanup of hazardous materials that are suspected at the mill site. This issue was raised by the two CRGC commissioners who voted against the plan amendment.
"We are very disappointed in the Gorge Commission," Lang explained. "Not only does the vote weaken rules that protect the Columbia Gorge, it flies in the face of thousands of public comments sent to the Gorge Commission that oppose this plan amendment. Today, we saw the commissioners sidestep their public responsibility to protect the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area and instead give a special favor to the Broughton Lumber Co."
According to Ascher, the next step in the process is for the adopted amendment to be sent to the Secretary of Agriculture for concurrence. If the Secretary finds the amendment is consistent with the purposes and standards of the Scenic Act, the amendment will be forwarded to Skamania County for adoption into the county's Scenic Area land use ordinance. The CRGC would then review the county ordinance for consistency with the Management Plan.
Ascher explained that only after the county has an approved ordinance adopting the changes for recreation resorts will a property owner be able to apply to Skamania County for review of a specific proposal.
Ascher noted that the CRGC first began considering this particular Management Plan revision in April 2006, and said he was relieved the decision had been reached.
"I'm glad we reached some sort of decision and things can move forward in some way," he said.
"This was a long time coming," Spadaro added. "A decision of this magnitude warrants a lot of discussion and we applaud the Gorge Commission for taking all the time and listening to all the public comment."
According to Spadaro, it will probably be at least a year or year and a half before Broughton proponents would start to prepare a specific plan for the resort.
Spadaro said the project is essentially on hold for the immediate future, as Friends of the Columbia Gorge appears likely to appeal the CRGC's ruling.
"We won't start preparing a final plan for submittal until we know the decision has been upheld in court," Spadaro said.
Spadaro added that he appreciates the widespread support the Broughton proposal has received.
"This ruling should be seen as a victory for the second purpose of the National Scenic Act -- to support the economy," Spadaro said. "This will be good for all of our communities, not just for Broughton."