Impact is in the timing of public testemony

March 17, 2012

A proposal by Naito Development LLC to create a cable park inside Nichols Boat Basin has roused considerable public interest over the last few months. The public process for the proposal gets started on March 19, when the City of Hood River Planning Commission will hold a hearing and site plan review. With the large amount of local chatter, as well as dozens of written comments already received both for and against the cable park, the meeting will likely include a lengthy round of public testimony before the commission can proceed.

Those who are familiar with the process, and the procedures the planning commission must follow, want people to know a couple of important details before Monday's meeting.

First, the cable park proposal is only a piece of the site plan review. Although other elements haven't generated near the buzz, the proposal includes other, more significant items; namely a 45,000 square-foot, 88-room hotel, a 20,000 square- foot office building and a parking lot.

Second, although the planning commission is required to hear all public testimony, it is not allowed to be influenced by testimony that is not directly related to the laws and review criteria it is required to consider.

"This is a complicated project involving both land and water use," said Arthur Babitz, City of Hood River Mayor. "It will require approval by several public entities … If you want your input to be considered, it is important to direct your comments to the right people at the right time."

The planning commission is restricted on what testimony it can and cannot be influenced by. The commission is limited to making decisions based on applicable laws and property rights, not broader concepts such as public interest.

"Monday's land use hearing is bound by strict rules which require the planning commission to decide if the proposal complies with the applicable rules," Babitz said. "The questions considered aren't subjective ones like 'will this project benefit the community,' but more objective ones like 'do the buildings meet the height and setback requirements' or 'is the parking adequate.'" The staff report contains a very long list of the questions the PC will consider. Public testimony which addresses these questions directly is most likely to influence the Planning Commission."

The City of Hood River website (www.ci.hood-river.or.us) has linked the planning commission staff report. Within the 22-page document, called "Findings of Fact and Proposed Conditions of Approval," elements of the proposal are broken down and discussed in relation to applicable laws and review criteria the commission must consider. Public testimony specifically relating to the questions and findings in that document would be most relevant to the discussion. However, testimony in favor of or against the proposed cable park, or any other element of the site plan, for reasons such as public interest, job creation, tourism or recreation potential will be irrelevant to the decision the commission must make.

The commission was faced with a similar situation last November, during hearings held for a proposed Walmart expansion project. The issue became a hot topic around Hood River for several months, and during the planning commission phase a multitude of people gave testimony both for and against the proposal. Much of the testimony was irrelevant, however, as it argued on personal, financial and philosophical grounds for and against the expansion of the retail giant's location.

"The maze of public meetings by different organizations to consider different parts of a proposed project can be very confusing," Babitz commented. "I know it seems, and is, very technical. But if you know the process, you will have the best chance at being an active part of it.

"The good thing is, in terms of the cable park, the public will have an opportunity to be a more significant part of the discussion once the process moves to the Port of Hood River.

"Because the cable park requires a lease of Port owned land, there is a place for the broader public debate over whether the cable park operation is in the public interest. The Port Commission has to make that very subjective determination, and they've promised to take public testimony before making that decision."

Port commission meetings discussing the cable park proposal have not yet been scheduled, but public comments are being accepted via e-mail at portHR@gorge.net. A notification e-email list is being complied through the same address.

Following Monday's meeting, the planning commission will likely direct staff to draft final language for a report, which would then be voted on. The commission has until May 22 to make a decision, as per a 120-day deadline from the date the application was deemed complete.

The City of Hood River will address the proposed project through the site plan review, as well as building permits for the hotel, commercial building and parking lot. It will also consider the upland impacts of the proposed cable park, such as traffic, parking and pathways. Depending on the city's action, the port may then consider leasing a portion of the boat basin to Naito Development for activities associated with the cable park.

The Army Corps of Engineers will also have a say, as they will decide whether or not to grant permits for in-water work associated with cable park infrastructure.

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