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County, CRGC face court battle over jurisdiction

Okay given by planner

Relations between the Columbia River Gorge Commission (CRGC) and Klickitat County have been pretty calm on the controversy front lately, but that might be about to change.

On May 11, during a meeting in Camas, the Gorge Commissioners voted 8-4 to overturn a short plat decision made by the Klickitat County Planning Department. The Planning Department had earlier approved splitting a small parcel of land in Murdock into three parcels.

Klickitat County Commissioner David Sauter, who attended the meeting, said the CRGC has no legal jurisdiction in the matter, adding that he anticipated a challenge to the CRGC in Superior Court.

"I was really shocked they heard the case in the first place," Sauter said. "We felt they did not have jurisdiction. Our attorneys believe we have a good case."

The conflict started harmlessly enough: Murdock resident Bert Arndt filed for a short plat on his land, which maps showed was in the urban area of Murdock. Urban areas are exempt from Scenic Area review. Arndt wanted to split a 5.23-acre parcel into three lots. The lot with an existing home on it would be 4.21 acres; a lot with an existing shop would be 0.59 acres; and a third lot that is currently vacant but could be used for potentially building a house, would be 0.43 acres.

Arndt submitted the application on May 12, 2008. The Planning Department approved his plan on April 17, 2009.

"It met all the zoning requirements," Sauter pointed out.

Sauter added that Klickitat County had entered into a "settlement agreement" with the CRGC in 2004, in which the county agreed to route land planning decisions to the Gorge Commission staff to make sure no National Scenic Area permits are required. The CRGC, which oversees development in the National Scenic Area, would have 30 days to respond -- otherwise the county would move forward with its own processes.

According to Sauter, the Arndt application for a short plat was swiftly routed to the CRGC. The CRGC responded with a letter saying the parcel was entirely in the urban area, and they (CRGC) had no jurisdiction.

"So the county proceeded," Sauter said.

The Enterprise has obtained a copy of the letter, which is dated May 27, 2008. CRGC Planner Jessica Metta responded to the Klickitat County Planning Department's inquiry on the Arndt parcel as follows: "I received an e-mail from you about requesting a determination if Bert Arndt's proposed short plat is entirely within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area," Metta wrote. "The proposed short plat is entirely within the Murdock/Dallesport Urban Area and thus not within the jurisdiction of the National Scenic Area."

"Three months later, the Friends of the Gorge contacted the CRGC and said there may be an issue with the boundary," Sauter said.

The Friends of the Gorge subsequently appealed the county's short plat decision -- to the CRGC.

"The case for us is that a decision was made in 1993 as to where the parcel was in relation to the Scenic Area," Sauter explained. "The Gorge Commission and the applicant used the same map, and the Gorge Commission initially said `Yes.' After the fact they changed the rules. We feel you have to have more certainty. You can't change a boundary 15 years after the fact."

Sauter said the CRGC was trying to overturn a short plat duly approved by the county following its legitimate processes.

"From their perspective, they have overturned it," Sauter explained. "But we would argue they have no right to intervene. Outside the Scenic Area boundary, they have no jurisdiction."

Sauter said he was disappointed in the CRGC action.

"From the county's perspective, we're defending the county's sovereignty," he said. "There was no deference to the county's processes. It's a slippery slope if the CRGC can assert impacts from outside the boundaries of the Scenic Area. The boundary is the boundary, and we will defend our jurisdiction."

Representatives of the Columbia River Gorge Commission did not respond to telephone calls seeking comment as of press time on Tuesday.


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