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Klickitat County eyes county alliance

In a historic move, Klickitat County said it is prepared to fund planning staff to help process land use applications for county residents within the National Scenic Area.

While it marks the first time the county has been willing to contribute financially to the scenic area planning process, it likely won’t be in the format initially proposed to the county last month.

Klickitat County Commission Chair Dave Sauter said the county is working with a partner county in the scenic area to get a proposal for what it would cost to hire planning staff to help process Klickitat County’s scenic area land use applications.

Since the scenic area’s creation 27 years ago, Klickitat County has been the only one of six gorge counties to not adopt its own scenic area land use ordinance and process its own land use applications.

That forced the Gorge Commission to process those applications instead.

During the recession, the Gorge Commission saw a sharp drop in planning staff, which coincided with a deep drop in applications. Now, applications are back to pre-recession levels, but planning staff is still down 70 percent.

Now the majority of commission planning staff time is spent on processing land use applications for Klickitat County, meaning it doesn’t have time to address issues of importance to the whole region. But the commission’s executive director has proposed halving the time spent on the county’s applications, so commission staff could focus on regional issues.

During the recession, the Gorge Commission removed its own timelines for processing applications. Now, with increasing applications, the amount of time it takes to process an application — around four to eight months — was projected to double.

“We do acknowledge that there is a problem,” Sauter said. “Meaning we know our citizens are impacted by taking too long to process applications.”

He’s hearing from citizens that if the application approval timeframe gets even longer, that would be even more of a deterrent to development in the county.

Last month, the Gorge Commission went to Klickitat County, asking for money to help pay for more planning staff to speed up the increasingly lengthy application process, which would become even more severe if the commission cut its time devoted to processing applications at a time when applications were increasing sharply.

The Gorge Commission proposed the county hire its own planner, plus pay for half a Gorge Commission planner.

Rather than consider working with the Gorge Commission, which Sauter said would be “politically difficult,” Klickitat County is getting proposals from another county, which he declined to name.

“We’re comparison shopping,” he said. “They’re putting the numbers together and that’s where the rubber meets the road. It’s all conceptual at this point until we find out what it costs.”

He also said the county was not considering adopting its own scenic area land use ordinance. “Big surprise there.”

The Gorge Commission’s request was timely, because Klickitat County is in the process of preparing its annual budget, which runs on a calendar year. Sauter expected to have a final proposal within a month.

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