VANCOUVER, Wash. (CN) – Environmental groups are fighting a county plan to increase development in the Columbia Gorge, which would rezone 1,000 acres of federally protected land from 20-acre minimum lot size to 1- or 2-acre lots.
Friends of the White Salmon River and Friends of the Columbia River Gorge sued Klickitat County in Clark County Superior Court. They claim the county’s plan will irreparably damage the environment in the scenic Gorge, and violate the Washington State Environmental Policy Act.
“The rezone changes the zoning on land from the northern border of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area north along the White Salmon River … from predominantly rural zoning allowing 20-acre minimum lot sizes to predominantly residential zoning allowing housing developments with 1-acre and 2-acre minimum lot sizes,” the complaint states.
Klickitat County is in south central Washington, on the eastern reaches of the 80-mile-long Columbia River Gorge, which reaches depths of 4,000 feet in the western Cascade Mountains. Thousands of tourists visit year-round to see its stunning scenes of natural beauty, such as 620-foot high Multnomah Falls. The Gorge is also a popular site with windsurfers, who soar in the 35-mph wind tunnel created by the Cascades.
Fish hatcheries installed in 1960 are restoring the Columbia River’s Chinook salmon populations, raising as many as 15 million fish each year.
Congress passed several acts to protect segments of the White Salmon River, which flows into the Gorge from the slopes of Mount Adams.
“A total of 31 miles of the White Salmon River is either designated as a Wild and Scenic River or located within the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area,” the complaint states.
“The White Salmon River is one of only three rivers in the State of Washington to receive a federal Wild and Scenic designation.”
In its 2011 management plan for the river, the U.S. Forest Service found that as many as 30,000 people visit the White Salmon River each year for water sports, such as whitewater boating and rafting, kayaking and canoeing.
The report also identified a Yakama Nation longhouse and the river’s fish species, especially rainbow and eastern brook trout, as “outstanding remarkable values” qualifying the river for protected status, according to the complaint.
Klickitat County’s Planning Department voted to update its Subarea Plan by increasing land zoned for residential development in May 2007.
But after hearing testimony from environmental groups and residents, the Board of Commissioners rejected the rezoning plan and ordered the Planning Department to analyze its impacts on water and wildlife.
The plaintiffs claim that the report conducted by Aspect Consulting failed to analyze impacts to wildlife, and that the Planning Department’s 2010 Determination of Non-Significance, which that relied on the study, is inadequate.
“The 2010 MDNS [mitigated determination of nonsignificance] does not address current or anticipated nitrate concentrations in the White Salmon River, its tributaries, seeps, and springs. The Aspect report failed to base the nitrate modeling on site-specific parameters such as hydraulic conductivity and groundwater gradient,” the complaint states. “This will lead to the Department of Ecology’s nitrate standard being exceeded in every zoning density, by a significant amount, unless a community wastewater system is utilized.
“The County failed to fully address the impact the Subarea Plan will have on wildlife. New residential development as well as roads and structures along the White Salmon is already harming the character of the river, and the best available science from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife indicates that increased densities of development will cause significant impacts on species viability and population in the rezoned area.”
Several environmental groups, state agencies, and the Yakama Nation filed administrative appeals against Klickitat County for adopting its determination of nonsignificance. The settlement with the Yakama Nation included an addendum expressing the importance of preserving “high value” farm lands, but failed to identify how much land would be preserved and how much would be included in the rezoning, according to the complaint.
The addendum claimed that the Fordyce Water Association could provide water to the rezoned district even though the association’s president, Paul Poknis, told the Board of Commissioners that it did not have enough hookups to support new residents and its current ratepayers in Husum, the complaint states.
The Forest Service’s management plan “recommended 20-acre lots to protect the White Salmon River from impacts of residential development,” according to the complaint.
But the county’s hearing examiner Philip Lamb said at a hearing in January that Klickitat County’s impact analysis did not violate the state’s Environmental Policy Act. After holding public hearings, the Board of Commissioners adopted the rezoning plan by 3-0 vote on May 22, but not until it received additional analyses from the Planning Department.
The plaintiffs seek declaratory judgment voiding the county’s approval of the rezoning plan and the Mitigated Determination of Non-Significance, and want the county ordered to do another environmental impact study that complies with the state’s Environmental Policy Act, and considers more environmentally friendly alternatives to the rezoning.
The plaintiffs are represented by Ralph Bloemers and Nathan Baker with the Crag Law Center in Portland, Ore.