Gorge plan review goes slowly forth

The Columbia River Gorge Commission hesitantly moved ahead on the first review of its land-use management plan on Nov. 13.

After nearly two hours of debate, the bi-state entity voted unanimously to tackle a list of 17 major policy issues and nine "cleanup" technical items.

An apparent reluctance to give staffers the go-ahead led Hood River's appointed representative, Joyce Reinig, to voice frustration about the level of caution being taken in the decision-making process.

"We've spent more time talking about the plan review than we spent to create the whole management plan," said Reinig. "We are trying so hard to be everything to everyone that we keep delaying the decision."

In 1997 the Gorge Commission began laying the groundwork for possible revision of the management plan, which was mandated by the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area Act, passed in 1986, to take place every 10 years, although it could be conducted anytime after the five year mark. The Gorge Commission spent three years working in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to develop the original plan, which was adopted in 1991.

However, many Gorge residents and officials from the four Mid-Columbia counties immediately raised an outcry that the regulations and zoning under that plan were both inflexible and inconsistent. In response to that outpouring of complaints, legislators from both sides of the Columbia sought to make the bi-state agency more accountable, first by tying its funding to an improvement in its working relationship with Scenic Area landowners and governments.

Oregon's latest effort to improve that partnership is the appointment of a joint legislative oversight committee to monitor the Gorge Commission's actions.

Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, was named as chair of that committee, and Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett, will serve as co-chair along with Rep. Jeff Kropf, R-Halsey. The panel includes five other legislators from throughout the state and will hold three public meetings after the first of the year, although actual dates have not yet been set.

"We want to coordinate our meetings with those scheduled by the Gorge Commission during the plan review process to make sure that citizens and local jurisdictions have ample opportunity to be involved," said Smith.

In December the Gorge Commission will be presented by staffers with an outline of public involvement opportunities during plan review, along with estimates on the amount of time and resources each issue will take.

Commission Executive Director Martha Bennett estimates it could take up to 24 months to finish the review of the current list, plus another several months for the commission's agency partners to sign off on any revisions.

"There is some concern among Commissioners about the amount of time plan review could take," said Bennett after the list was approved. "The Commission may reduce the list of issues once we have a work plan in place that defines the timeline we're looking at for all the major policy issues."

While that work is underway, the first oversight session will be held in The Dalles and include a full-day orientation on the passage of the Scenic Area Act, the creation of the bi-state compact and Gorge Commission. Information will be provided about the bi-state entity's function, recent litigation, a conflict resolution mechanism, administrative rules, funding, interaction with citizens and both state and local governments.

The second meeting in Hood River will be to review the successes and failures of Scenic Area Act administration, including the operations of the Gorge Commission, impact on land use, air quality, natural resource protection, economic development, citizen involvement and interface with local jurisdiction.

A final forum will take place in Multnomah County to gather testimony from Scenic Area residents and interview members of the Gorge Commission regarding the subcommittee's finding.

Smith said the legislators involved in the oversight process will them formulate a record and/or recommended action to the full Natural Resources Committee for its review and consideration.

"I'm hoping we can alleviate some of the Gorge Commission's past accountability problems and the feeling among many Scenic Area residents that they aren't being heard," said Smith.

The Gorge Commission's recommended list of priority issues is available by calling 509-493-3323, or in the Publications section on the Gorge Commission's website: www.gorgecommission.org

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