County repeals controversial zoning ordinance that threatened the lands and waters around the Wild & Scenic White Salmon River.

 By Ralph Bloemers, Staff Attorney

For over three years, river advocates have been celebrating the removal of Condit Dam from the White Salmon River in Washington State.   The river is not only famous for its amazing whitewater but also for the restoration of its lower gorge into a freely flowing river.   Yet while we have been celebrating this momentous achievement, significant threats to the lands and waters that feed the river’s tributaries, seeps and springs loomed.   Now, after six years of legal battles, Klickitat County has repealed its controversial zoning proposal that threatened to greatly increase sprawl along the river.

As steps were being taken to remove Condit dam, local citizens were in the midst of a legal IMG_2284battle over the future of the farm and forestlands along the banks of the White Salmon River that were proposed to be restored.  In 2009, Klickitat County moved forward with a proposal to allow increased residential development on over 1,000 acres in and around the small rural enclaves of BZ Corner and Husum.   The rezone would have allowed for a ten-fold increase in development and allowed minimum lot sizes of 2 acres.

Under the new zoning scheme, there would be hundreds of new water wells and septic systems in and around the river and its tributaries. Given the interconnected nature of the shallow aquifers and the numerous seeps, springs and tributaries that feed the river, these news wells and septic systems threatened the water quantity and quality on the river. Development along the rivers banks directly threatened the clean, cool water that is critical for the recovery of trout and salmon in the river, which are the features for which this river was designated under the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act.

Despite strong opposition from the public, state agencies, the Yakama Nation, the Forest OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAService and conservation groups, the county forged ahead with its decision to rezone.   The river was flowing free again, but now sprawling development was directly threatening the river. After all the work people put in to restore the White Salmon River, local citizens felt they had no alternative but to stand up and challenge the County’s short-sighted plans in court.

The Friends of the White Salmon River and the Friends of the Gorge retained the Crag Law Center to bring a legal challenge the County’s decision.   As Condit Dam came down piece-by-piece in June 2012, we moved to file suit in Washington Superior Court. Local residents testified how the scheme personally threatened their private property and water supplies. Crag retained experts who explained how the river, its tributaries and the fish and wildlife that depend on the river would be impacted by rural sprawl along the river.   The groups alleged that the County had violated the state environmental laws and constitutional protections for private property.

In the summer of 2013, Superior Court Judge Barbara Johnson agreed with the groups and held that the county’s extensive rezoning plan was unconstitutional, illegally giving individual landowners the right to increase the development densities on their land. The court also held that the County failed to disclose the zoning scheme’s signification impacts on fish, wildlife, and water supplies.   The Court ruled that the County must prepare an Environmental Impact Statement consistent with Washington law and consider alternatives that are consistent with the Wild & Scenic character of the river.

Instead of accepting the Court’s ruling and working with the public and the community to develop alternatives, the County appealed.   The Friends of the White Salmon River and the Friends of the Gorge opposed the appeal and the case was presented to the Court of Appeals earlier this year. Then, in an unexpected turn, in early June the County decided to repeal the controversial ordinance wholesale. This repeal is scheduled to be effective on July 20, 2015. As part of its repeal, the County reneged the agreement it reached with the Yakama Nation to protect cultural resource in the valley. The County did not indicate what it plans to do in the future for its zoning plan.

While the White Salmon River has proven yet again that it is the little river that could, the fight is far from over. The removal of the Condit Dam was a huge achievement – and we are proud of this work. The future of the river will be determined by the fate of the land in and around it, and one thing is clear, Klickitat County does not appear to be inclined to take action to protect the river from unsustainable development. The community will need to remain vigilant and, for those folks that care about the river, they would be wise to support the Friends of the White Salmon River and Friends of the Columbia River Gorge to continue to watchdog this special place.