The Gorge Commission asked Klickitat County to dedicate its own full-time planner to scenic area land use applications in the county, plus pay $37,000 for a half-time gorge Commission planner to do the same.
In a 50-minute appearance before the Klickitat County Commission, Tuesday, Sept. 24, the executive director of the Gorge Commission and two commissioners made their appeal.
“This might be precedent-setting,” said Gorge Commission Chair Carl McNew, who is Klickitat County’s representative on the commission. “I don’t think the Gorge Commission has ever come hat in hand with a tin cup” to a county before, asking for money.
Klickitat County commissioners offered little comment — except to ask why so much staff time was spent per application, and to express fear that the permitting process was getting out of hand with so much comment being sought from other parties — but said they would invite the commissioners back later to discuss it further.
Klickitat County Commission Chair Dave Sauter said, “It’s been characterized that Klickitat County is hogging up all the resources and that’s part of the reason you can’t do the big picture stuff.”
Gorge Commission Executive Director Darren Nichols said, “I don’t want you to have the impression we’re trying to strong-arm or brow-beat [you.]” He said the commission has a wide range of issues to tackle, and “we can no longer ignore those needs to do development reviews” for Klickitat County.
Because Klickitat County is the only one of six gorge counties to decline to adopt its own scenic area land use ordinances, the Gorge Commission is required to process land use applications there.
Gorge Commission staff cuts in 2009 and 2010 decimated planning staff, but development review applications were sharply down because of the recession.
Now, though, applications are back to pre-recession levels, but the planning staff is still down 70 percent. There are 1.6 planners, down from 4.5.
Meanwhile, the commission is facing a number of pressing regional issues — from urban boundary mapping to recreation pressures to housing issues — that demand staff attention.
“We can’t get to that stuff if we’re processing [Klickitat County] development reviews,” Nichols said. “We’re in a very difficult position and we’re asking for help.”
He said it was “embarrassing” to say, but “We’re not able to provide the level of service that Klickitat County citizens should be able to rely on,” Nichols said. The commission has .9 FTE (Full Time Employee) devoted to Klickitat County applications, and Nichols proposes to cut that to .5 FTE, so more time can be spent on other issues. He is asking Klickitat County to pay for that .5 FTE.
The Gorge Commission will consider his proposal to cut the FTE at its Oct. 8 meeting in Vancouver.
A Gorge Commission fact sheet estimated staff spends 70 hours on each development review application, and generally spends about 16 hours per week on other planning services related to Klickitat County, from general customer service to compliance monitoring. About a third of staff time is spent reviewing applications for compliance with standards, and drafting findings.
The commission spends a lot of time working to get applications right to avoid appeals, Nichols said.
Appeals are rare, with only one to three a year on average from all six scenic area counties.
In 2012, applications were reviewed within four to seven months from the date they were received. With a potential doubling of applications, the timeframe for approval would also potentially double, to eight to 14 months.
“Factors influencing the timeline of a decision typically included the expertise of the applicant, the type and complexity of the proposal, natural and cultural resources on the site, the location of the site in relation to key viewing areas, and the required level of coordination with other agencies and tribes,” the fact sheet stated.
Sauter said, “The possibility of extending development reviews to 14 months, that’s unacceptable. If you want to be a drag on development, that’s the way to do it.”
“I don’t want to be a drag on development,” Nichols said.
Klickitat County Commissioner Jim Sizemore asked what made scenic area land use rules so much more stringent than outside the scenic area. Nichols said the gorge was “a pretty unique place” and “we’re on the world’s radar.”
It has rules that other areas don’t have because of its specialness and the need to care for it, he said.
Issues can range from whether a property is by a game trail to whether it’s visible from key viewing areas or has cultural resources on it.
The gorge is not only seen as a destination worldwide, but it also has “a hornet’s nest” of scrutiny to ensure it complies with land use rules, McNew said. “There’s a lot of eyes looking at it.”
He said each application is unique depending on its location.
“They’re nuanced, they’re not simple as far as [specifying] the height of a fence” for instance.
If an application is not up to snuff, “the appeals will rain down from all the people we know and love that don’t live here,” McNew said.
Sauter asked about the time involvement for gorge planners in Klickitat County compared to the timeframe for planners in the other five counties.
Nichols said he didn’t know.
“We need to know that,” Sizemore said. “We need to know [a figure that’s] apples to apples.”
Wasco County’s planning director, John Roberts, earlier told the Chronicle that scenic area applications are typically handled within 45 days in Wasco County, but can slow to 60 days if staff is short and it’s the busy season, as happened this past summer.
Sauter said the state used to provide money to the commission specifically to offset costs of doing Klickitat County planning. Nichols said that is no longer the case. The state does give money to Skamania County to help, but when Nichols asked for the same for Klickitat County, he was turned down.
When Nichols spoke of the difficulty and time involvement in gathering comment from other agencies on an application, Sauter said, “This is what gives me heartburn.”
Sauter wondered if the commission was “feeding the process, meaning where it’s acceptable that it takes a full-time planner to process 12 applications.”
He wondered where it would end, perhaps with it taking a planner a year just to do one application.
Sauter said the county has seen “an explosion of interest” in land use applications, where “three people from two counties over want to participate” in an application, “whether you really have a dog in the fight or not.”
“That’s my worry,” Sauter said, “that we accept that’s the cost of doing business here.”
He said the tribes and other entities “have a renewed vigor and every single thing we do, there’s a whole big process.”
He likened it to “blackmail or extortion,” and said whenever you pay a blackmailer, they keep coming back for more.