The gorge commission is finally firming up the boundaries of urban areas in the national scenic area, but the news really doesn’t help The Dalles, the town most anxious to expand its boundaries.
“It essentially means nothing,” said Dick Gassman, planning director for The Dalles.
That’s because even with firm lines, the process for expanding them is still something the gorge commission isn’t staffed up to do. It even told the city several years ago: “don’t ask.”
“I’m sure that people thought, when the time came, [communities] would be able to change the urban exempt areas, and frankly, some day, you may be able to make changes, but right now it’s virtually impossible, going through the gorge commission. They’re just not set up to do it, and there will be a lot of opposition,” Gassman said.
The city is hemmed in by the Columbia River to the north, hills and agricultural land to the south, and federal land to the east. That leaves the northwestern boundary as the only area for possible expansion, Gassman said.
That area is west of Chenowith Creek and back up toward Foley Lakes, and on the other side of the quarry off Highway 30, toward the golf course, he said.
The city has worked for years to pursue this expansion.
The state requires cities to have a 20-year supply of buildable land to accommodate growth, but The Dalles was exempted from that requirement because of its inability to grow its boundaries due to the gorge commission limitation.
The 1986 federal law creating the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area stipulates that minor changes to urban area boundaries be handled by the gorge commission, but major changes must be done by Congress itself.
But, the definition of what is a minor vs. a major change has not been addressed, Gassman said.
So, with no definition of minor and major, and no process for seeking expansion, expansion plans are on hold.
With an approach to the gorge commission out of the question, the only other option is Congress. “But you can imagine what sort of a brouhaha that would start,” he said.
Actually, Gassman said the city’s outreach team did ask its congressional delegation about that years ago, but was told to pursue local options first.
The Dalles Mayor Steve Lawrence said he spoke to a staffer for Sen. Jeff Merkley, who gave the same advice, telling him approaching the gorge commission for minor adjustments was the only option.
Gassman said the urban area boundaries in Washington provide vastly more room to grow than the ones in Oregon. When the scenic area was created in 1986, Oregon already had strict land use laws. Washington did not. Oregon boundaries roughly followed then existing state-drawn urban growth boundaries, and did not provide much room to grow.
“The urban exempt area for Dallesport is larger than the one for the Dalles by 15 or 20 percent,” he said.
The city has even had several suggestions that it expand into Dallesport. But, Gassman said, “that doesn’t work under Oregon law, because we’re supposed to provide the land in Oregon. Not in Washington.”
With no apparent chance of growing its urban exempt area from either the gorge commission or Congress, the only other option is to build up instead of out, Gassman said. But that’s expensive, and the only reason people do that is when land is scarce.
And that’s not the case yet, at least in the near term. The city still has a reserve of buildable land, Gassman said, and growth is occurring, but slowly.