For 27 years now, the Gorge Commission has processed scenic area land use applications from Klickitat County, since it’s the only gorge county that did not adopt its own scenic area rules.
But with reduced staff and pressing gorge-wide issues to attend to, the Gorge Commission is reluctantly planning to almost halve the amount of staff time spent on Klickitat County applications — at a time when applications have doubled because of a rebounded economy.
Representatives from the commission will attend the Klickitat County Commission meeting next Tuesday at 2 p.m. and discuss the dilemma and the impact it could have on Klickitat County residents in terms of longer wait times for planning decisions. They will also request that the county help the commission with staffing costs, or adopt its own ordinance and handle its own scenic area applications.
The other five gorge counties adopted their own scenic area ordinances in the years after the scenic area was created, and they handle their own land use applications.
“It’s not a power play of any kind, it’s like a ‘help!’” said Gorge Commissioner Rodger Nichols of The Dalles. “I would characterize it as maybe we can find a way to find a solution between us.”
Gorge Commissioner Dan Ericksen, also of The Dalles, put it more starkly. “Unfortunately it has a certain ring of blackmail to it: ‘Put up or we’re going to cut you off.’ But we have limited resources and it’s a tough decision, but we’ve weighed the priorities and this is how we’re going to deal with it.”
Gorge Commission Executive Director Darren Nichols presented a work plan to the commission Sept. 10 that would cut the staff time spent on Klickitat County applications from .9 FTE (full-time equivalent employees) to .5 FTE.
Klickitat County is on track to generate 26 development review applications this year, Director Nichols said. The commission has had a 70 percent cut in planning staff since 2009 — going from 4.5 to 1.6 planners — but applications were also significantly down during the recession, to about 10 a year.
It would be “irresponsible,” Director Nichols said, to devote “even a majority of our planning staff” to Klickitat County “to the exclusion of the other five counties’ needs for technical assistance, for customer service, for policy updates.”
“From what I can tell,” said Nichols, who has been the commission executive director for almost two years, “We’ve never had this frank, honest discussion about the region’s needs and where our responsibility to Klickitat County fits in relation to these other desperately needed policies.”
After 83 people were interviewed last year about key gorge issues, the commission has established three top priorities: addressing uncontrolled growth in recreation that is threatening to destroy cultural and natural resources; setting urban planning policy; and continuing the “Vital Signs” project that monitors numerous key factors affecting the health of the gorge.
Klickitat County Commission Chair Dave Sauter said, “One of the questions we’re going to have is the amount of time it takes them to process an application.”
He said if Klickitat County averaged just 12 applications a year during the recession, and the gorge commission was devoting .9 FTE to processing them, that means each application took 150 hours of staff time.
“We’re like, ‘Wow,’ that does not seem like a credible number to us. We understand in the scenic area the level of scrutiny is much higher than it is outside the scenic area,” Sauter said.
“They’re going to have to justify to us that they’re efficiently using resources before we discuss” helping them, he said.
“We’re not saying that this is an invalid number, we just don’t know,” Sauter said. “We don’t have any experience with that. From our experience, from doing our own planning efforts outside the scenic area, that seems like a really large” number.
Director Nichols said it was inaccurate to say it took 150 hours per application.
Rather, he said, the commission provides a range of planning services to Klickitat County residents, from technical services to helping people on possible applications that never get filed.
“We spend a lot of time helping people get it right the first time so they don’t have to endure the cost or the delay of appeals,” he said.
After spending significant up-front work with an applicant, the application then goes to an interagency, intertribal coordination process that varies widely in terms of depth, he said.
After that, the actual application review happens, and it takes probably 40-60 hours of “comparing detailed findings of each application, of each proposal, against the National Scenic Area Act and the management plan,” he said.
Planners also do site visits, inspections, compliance monitoring and enforcement in the county, he said.
He added, “The Gorge Commission would like to explore with Klickitat County ways to improve efficiency of the overall process by incorporating Klickitat County’s” own review process into “one seamless, efficient National Scenic Area review.
“I think there’s an opportunity there for us to work together and identify several efficiencies that would benefit landowners,” he said.
Sauter noted that he offered some advice to Klickitat County’s representative to the Gorge Commission, Carl McNew, who happens to be the commission’s chair, about the upcoming meeting with the Klickitat County commission.
“I said, ‘We’re culturally very sensitive in Klickitat County. [Don’t make what could appear as] kind of a strong-arm tactic. Don’t threaten us. Don’t try to leverage us. Come and explain the problem. We are intelligent, open-minded folks. And we’re open to having the discussion.’”
Ericksen said, “One way of looking at the whole issue is that Klickitat County, by not adopting the ordinances is taking an inordinate amount of the revenues that are provided by the two states, to just process permits, so part of Oregon’s money is subsidizing Klickitat County planning.” The Gorge Commission is jointly funded by Oregon and Washington.
Director Nichols said the proposed reduction in staff time dedicated to processing development reviews in Klickitat County will mean applications that now take between four and eight months to complete will take “significantly longer,” he said.
Commissioner Nichols said the Gorge Commission can’t even charge planning fees to applicants, to help recoup costs.
Klickitat County is seen as a relatively well-off county because it gets proceeds from a regional landfill. In its 2013 budget, the landfill proceeds were budgeted at $7.9 million.
Its planning department budget is listed at $532,764. The Gorge Commission’s overall budget is $872,000.