In a historic agreement — nearly 18 months in the making — Klickitat County will devote planning staff time to help the Gorge Commission process land use applications within its borders.
A Klickitat County planner will spend at least one day a week at the commission’s White Salmon office to process applications, and devote more time to applications at the county’s Goldendale planning office, Klickitat County Commissioner Dave Sauter told the commission at its meeting Tuesday in The Dalles.
“We have seen the impact of the [commission] staffing levels as they exist now and their ability to process the permits,” Sauter said. There are actually “significant impacts to economic development” in the county, he said.
“This doesn’t solve everything, it is a first step,” he said.
To get a sense of how much of a shift in thinking this is for Klickitat County, Sauter quipped that everybody would know when the agreement had been signed later that day by the county due to the sight of the “mushroom cloud over Goldendale.”
Klickitat County has long maintained the most resistance of the six gorge counties to the scenic area land use regulations. It is the only county to not adopt its own rules for developments in the federally-protected gorge corridor.
Consequently, land use applications within the scenic area in Klickitat County have been handled by the gorge commission.
The commission started experiencing deep staffing cuts in 2009, eventually dropping from 4.5 planners to 1.6, but the recession also slowed applications to a trickle. Even so, by 2013, there was a year-long backlog for getting permits.
The recession ended and the applications started to flow again, but staffing hasn’t increased.
The wait time has crept up to about 18 months, and the amount of applications has grown significantly, from about 12 in the queue in September 2013, to 37 today, Gorge Commission Executive Director Darren Nichols said.
Gorge Commissioner Bowen Blair, an Oregon governor appointee from Portland, said of Klickitat’s decison, “I think it’s a real step forward.” He hoped more changes were coming.
At earlier meetings, Sauter has cautioned hopeful gorge commissioners to not expect the next step to be Klickitat County adopting its own land use rules. He said that possibility was very much off the table.
Sauter told the Chronicle he expects up to half of Klickitat planners’ time to be spent on the permit backlog. He understands there is some flexibility on which permits will be tackled and in what order.
One concern has been whether the easiest ones would be done first, or the oldest ones. He understands it will be a mix.
Several commissioners thanked Klickitat County and Sauter for making the agreement happen.
Commissioner Dan Ericksen, an Oregon governor appointee from The Dalles, and a former Wasco County commissioner, said he understood the trials Sauter was going through by shepherding a politically divisive agreement through.
Sauter acknowledged the challenges he faced, saying, “This is not without cost.”
Gorge Commissioner Carl McNew, representing Klickitat County, said the agreement would not have happened without Sauter. “I can’t thank you enough. It’s a big deal.”
Echoing how much of an impact the permit backlog has had, Gorge Commissioner Lorrie DeKay, a Washington governor appointee from White Salmon, said it was one of the reasons she became interested in joining the commission.
Then Commissioner Jim Middaugh, a Multnomah County appointee from Portland, lightened the mood by saying that, as a liberal member of the commission, “I’m tempted to vote no to help you out politically, but I’m going to vote yes.”
The gorge commission first approached Klickitat County in September 2013, asking for help to process land use applications. It asked for a full-time county planner to work on permits.
Negotiations hit some snags. A June 2014 letter from the Klickitat County planning department said having one of its staff work out of the commission office — which is what the just-signed agreement calls for — would be “impractical.”
Sauter told the commission, “Sometimes, in seemingly intractable situations you can see forward consensus.”
Another issue was the county planner’s access to confidential information in the commission office. The agreement states the planner will keep that information confidential.
Klickitat County felt that was “kind of a given to us, but they wanted some assurance,” Sauter said.
Planners work with confidential information all the time, he said.
Sauter said the county at this point expects its planner to work up to half-time on the backlog “until we get caught up.”
Only once the work is started, however, will the needed resources be known, he said. The agreement calls for monthly and quarterly updates on progress.
Sauter said the county’s senior planner was ready to start working right away at the commission office one day a week.
The planner will participate in all phases of the permit process, and her completed work will go out under the signature of the commission’s executive director.