In September, the Gorge Commission asked for Klickitat County’s help in providing planning staff to process the complex scenic area land use applications within the county.
Klickitat County hasn’t gone so far as to hire a planner yet, or give the commission money to hire one. But at the commission’s Nov. 12 meeting, it did propose having one of its senior planners “job shadow” her counterparts at the gorge commission to gain a better understanding of the complexities of scenic area land use decisions.
In plainer language, the county wanted to understand why it takes the commission so long to process an application, relative to how long it takes the county to process its own, admittedly simpler, land use applications.
Turnaround times on scenic area land use applications now stand at four to eight months, and could double.
As a show of goodwill, and at the suggestion of Gorge Commissioner Rodger Nichols from The Dalles, the gorge commission in turn agreed to postpone for 60 days its plan to cut nearly in half the planning staff time it devotes to processing land use applications in Klickitat County.
It was that time-reduction plan which prompted discussions between the commission and county.
The plan came about because the commission said it had pressing regional issues that it had to devote planning staff time to, but the bulk of its planning staff — .9 of l.6 FTE — was instead being used to process land use applications for Klickitat County.
The county is the only one of six counties in the scenic area that did not adopt its own scenic area land use ordinances.
The new work plan cuts that .9 FTE down to .5 FTE.
Based on what the senior planner reports back to the county, it will proceed from there, said Klickitat County Commission Chair Dave Sauter.
“I hesitate to use the word investigate, but that’s part of what is going on,” he said.
As a show of good faith, the county has put a placeholder in its 2014 budget to devote resources to planning staff if needed, Sauter said.
Sauter said because of the commission’s request to the county for help, the two entities have talked more in the last three months than they have in all of the last 25 years, to his knowledge.
Sauter said he understood that Klickitat County was just one of six counties, and he was sensitive to the perception of “the tail wagging the dog.”
He also understood the commission needs to do “what you need to do as far as what is best for the commission as a whole. Will there be impacts from that? Yes there will.”
Sauter said the time it takes to approve an application is “an economic development issue.” Taking 12 to 14 months to get an approval “is unacceptable,” he said. A former builder, Sauter said construction plans change frequently, and the system is not set up to allow that.
He also said the commission’s request to the county that it adopt its own scenic area land use rules was given “a very serious look… It wasn’t dismissed out of hand.”
But, he said, “Having weighed all the factors, that’s not an option for us. In our view, the downsides outweigh the upsides.”
“The scenic act did not require counties to adopt. It’s an option. We ask the commission to respect the county’s decision not to adopt,” Sauter said.
He said the county realized the number of people affected by the scenic act is a small portion of the county’s population – about 500 people out of 20,100.
“Yes, if we adopted the ordinance and administered it, it would help those 500 people,” he said. “But the cost, I’ll be frank with you, the thing that really gives us pause is the litigation. We’ve done some analysis on it.”
“We draw fire,” he said. “We are a lightning rod for litigation. I think part of it is we’re outspoken. We’re ready to stand up for what we think.”
Sauter asked the commission to “be patient” as the county decides how to proceed. “It’s difficult to change perceptions,” he said, and people are “very passionate” about the scenic act. He asked the commission to “recognize that this is a difficult conversation.”
Nichols lauded Sauter for his work on the matter.
“He is spending a lot of political capital on this,” Nichols told The Chronicle.
Sauter said the county has high hopes for what can result from the county planner’s job shadowing.
“We’re hoping there can be all kinds of dialogue and coordination that comes out of this,” he said. “We want to build a relationship.”
He said, “It was a difficult sell even to do that” in terms of the job shadowing proposal.