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Klickitat Co. offers scenic aid

As a backlog-busting move, Klickitat County proposed that its planners do the legwork for scenic area applications in the county, and hand over completed paperwork for Gorge Commission planners to sign off on.

It is the county’s response to a request from the Gorge Commission last fall to have Klickitat County provide resources to the Gorge Commission to ease a growing backlog of land use applications from the county.

The county’s proposal met with support from the Gorge Commission at its April 8 meeting. A detailed plan will be hashed out at the staff level and presented to the commission in a month or so.

Klickitat County residents living in the scenic area face a year-long wait for a building permit, exacerbated by a small staff at the commission, and increasing applications as the economy improves.

About 20 applicants are waiting for development review right now.

One of those applicants is Christina Bowen, who wants to build a deck. She was expecting a three-to four-month turnaround, but when she was told it could be a year, “I kind of fell down and cried.”

What the long wait has done is “create an atmosphere of non-compliance… The situation is insane and normal people who would be complying with the law are now” ignoring it. All her neighbors encouraged her to just build anyway, she said, which creates a health and safety issue.

Klickitat County Commissioner Dave Sauter told the commission the county already had some candidates who were willing to be the first applicants to work under the proposed new format.

But Gorge Commissioner Gorham Blaine questioned whether that was fair to people who were already in line.

Sauter explained that the county wanted to start out with simple applications as a way to ease its planner into the process, but he understood the need to be fair to those already in line.

He said planners would have to look at the caseload to see what would be a good application to start with.

Several Gorge Commissioners openly hoped this willingness of Klickitat County to take on application preparation might be a sign that the county would ultimately adopt its own scenic area ordinance. It is the only one of six counties in the gorge that has declined to adopt its own ordinances, which compels the commission staff to handle applications.

But Sauter put a firm stop to that notion, saying, “If this whole conversation is a pre-cursor for the county adopting, there’s no reason to have the conversation.”

The Gorge Commission told the county last fall that it would have to cut back planning hours dedicated to county planning permits, because, in fairness, the planning staff had to focus on region-wide issues. Now, nearly two-thirds of the commission’s planning time is spent processing Klickitat County applications. The commission proposed cutting that time in half, which would increase the wait time for permits.

Sauter said the county has had “long, long conversations” about adopting the scenic area ordinances, but feels the benefits to the 500 people living in the scenic area were outweighed by the liability to the other 19,500 people in the county in terms of lawsuits.

Sauter said his county is a magnet for litigation and he believes it would be targeted with spurious lawsuits that the other five gorge counties would not face. He said that is based on past experience.

Gorge Commissioner Blaine also worried that there might not be actual time savings in the process, as the county’s planner would be learning the ropes, and meanwhile, the commission planner would be carefully reviewing it — effectively re-doing it — to make sure it was in order. “I don’t see them as rubber-stamping” the first applications, he said.

Bowen, the landowner who wants to build a deck, also has a planning background, and said it takes far less time to read and correct a 30-page report than to write one.

Sauter believed it would lead to “serious savings” of time, but also agreed that it would take time for that trust to develop. “If you’re signing off on the permit, it’s hard to do when it’s not your work, I understand that.”

Sauter noted that all the planners involved are “highly trained professional planners” who received the same training in college. “They should be able to prepare an application in a professional way that uses the same standards your staff uses.”

He said county planners also work with protection of cultural and wildlife resources. “We’re not unfamiliar with that.”

The county will dedicate one planner to work on scenic area applications.

Still also to be decided is where the planner would work — from Goldendale or White Salmon, and how much time each week they’d work on scenic area applications. Commissioners uniformly favored a White Salmon location, since that is closest to where scenic area residents live.

Sauter said a senior planner spent a good deal of time shadowing gorge commission planners. “The county acknowledges there was a problem. This was not necessarily self-evident when we started the conversation.”

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