Citizens of towns located in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area had better get used to the size they are, because they won’t be getting bigger anytime soon. In a two-day meeting of the Columbia River Gorge Commission Aug. 11-12, a series of narrow votes resulted in a set of new requirements that make it virtually impossible for towns to expand their urban area boundaries. If towns somehow manage to jump through all the new regulatory hoops, they are limited to 20 acres at a time and a maximum total of 50 acres forever.

These are just a few of the multiple changes and edits to the 500-page Management Plan that governs how the Gorge Commission and the Forest Service administer the Scenic Area.

Many of the changes came despite opposing testimony from Wasco, Klickitat and Skamania counties, the cities of The Dalles and Cascade Locks, and the Ports of The Dalles and Skamania County. Commissioners who voted for harder qualifications even ignored the comments of the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, the agency in charge of planning for the whole state of Oregon, that “this policy is disproportionately burdensome on Gorge communities on the south side of the river.”

The resulting changes further perpetuate what Oregon cities and counties perceive as a historic inequity dating back to the implementation of the National Scenic Area Act more than a third of a century ago. The Act was passed in 1986, but in 1973, Oregon passed Senate Bill 100, which required land use planning throughout the state. Part of that was to establish “urban growth boundaries,” or UGBs. The idea was to define an area outside existing city limits that would have enough territory to satisfy projected needs for residential, commercial and industrial growth for 20 years. Cities could expand into that area without having to appeal to state for permission to do so,

When the National Scenic Area Act passed, Oregon had UGBs around every city in the state, including four that happened to lie within the borders of the new scenic area — The Dalles, Mosier, Hood River and Cascade Locks. The Act included maps depicting what they called “urban area boundaries,” or UABs. On the Oregon side, the UABs were designed to mostly conform to the established UGBs. On the Washington side, however, there were no pre-established areas for cities to grow, so the Congressional aides drawing up the maps for the Scenic Area suggested to towns and communities on the Washington side to think big, suggesting they plan for a 75-year supply. They even gave urban area boundaries to four communities that don’t even have incorporated cities — Carson, Home Valley, Wishram and Dallesport, while ignoring communities on the Oregon side that didn’t have incorporated cities — Celilo Village, Rowena, Dodson-Warrendale and Corbett.

The National Scenic Area Act did recognize that cities had a legitimate reason to grow, and empowered the Gorge Commission to adjust the UABs, but only if such adjustment is “minor,” without defining minor. Anything beyond that literally requires an Act of Congress. The new adjustments to the Management Plan including a definition of minor as one percent of the acreage already in the urban area, or 20 acres, whichever is smaller. Originally, another change added that the 20 acre, one percent rule would be the total expansion allowed forever. At the last minute, that was expanded to 50 acres or 2 percent as a lifetime limit, but each application could only be for 20 acres or one percent. To get the full 50 acres, cities would have to apply three different times, at enormous cost and expense.

Another addition was the requirement that cities would be required to consider nearby areas for expansion — i.e. The Dalles could satisfy its need for more housing, more commercial land and more industrial land in Dallesport. However, that does not help The Dalles grow — people in Dallesport live in, and pay taxes to, Klickitat County and the State of Washington, not to The Dalles. They may shop over here, but with no sales tax, that doesn’t benefit local government, only local store owners. Providing more commercial growth in Dallesport doesn’t benefit The Dalles either, because people from The Dalles aren’t going to cross the bridge, drive seven miles and pay a sales tax. Industrial development may increase employment, but Oregon residents still have to pay Oregon income tax on money they earn, whether it comes from out of state or not.

The implication is that the Dallesport urban area would have to fill up before The Dalles could expand. And since the Dallesport urban area is the largest in the Gorge at 6,427 acres, it limits even the possibility of applying for local expansion for the foreseeable future.

“While I’m not surprised, I’m very disappointed,” said Wasco County Commission Chair Scott Hege, “particularly in the fact that we’re not able to have the same ability to grow as the other communities in the state. That really puts us at a disadvantage.”

Rodger Nichols is Vice-Chair of the Columbia Gorge Commission and long-time news reporter based in The Dalles.

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