With a recent purchase of property above Cape Horn, the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge may get its own equivalent of the Crown Point viewing area … Now, it has its own casino-like project, too: A large proposed development that would bring tourists and jobs to the heart of the Columbia Gorge. All it would cost, say opponents, are serious compromises to gorge scenic protections.
The proposed project is actually a re-development: The Broughton Lumber Company of Skamania County hopes to create a windsurfers’ resort and condo community on what is now its long-dormant lumber mill along State Route 14 near Underwood, west of Bingen/White Salmon, and across the wind-whipped Columbia from Hood River. The proposed “Broughton Landing” plan would resurrect the site, transforming it from a rusting ghost-town of empty mill buildings into a Sunriver-like destination resort.
Broughton Lumber is owned by the gorge’s Stevenson and Broughton families; the Stevenson family also owns SDS Lumber Company of Bingen. Jason Spadaro, president of SDS, is managing the Broughton Landing project, too. He led a tour of the mill grounds last week in unveiling the resort project plans publicly, after months of negotiations with local governments and the Friends of the Columbia Gorge conservation group.
Following the tour, Spadaro went before the Columbia River Gorge Commission to ask for advice on how to amend or rezone the mill land — the 60-acre mill site is inside the National Scenic Area of the gorge, and outside any urban growth area — to allow for the resort project. The Commission took no action, and is now waiting for Broughton to file a request for a plan amendment.
The gorge’s newest community?
Broughton Landing could bring up to 60 permanent jobs and a couple million dollars in local tax revenues every year, according to Broughton’s development projections (see the link above for the company web site, with documents).
But building the resort, say the Friends, would involve cracking open the gorge’s Nationa Scenic Area protections for the sake of a resort the size of a small town.
Broughton’s preferred development plan, according to developer documents, would create about 250 units at Broughton Landing, a mix of townhouse units, condos, cabins, cottages and four-plexes; that plus a central building, admin offices, a restaurant, pool, fitness and spa facilities and a coffee shop/pub. The 250 residential units would be built up over eight years at a total project cost of about $70 million.
(The total gorge hotel/motel occupancy currently is 1,200 rooms. Skamania Lodge near Stevenson has 254.)
A couple quick calculations: 250 units with 1,100 beds means that, at full capacity, Broughton Landing could be as large and bustling as White Salmon (population about 2,300) — or, in other words, an entirely new, private, town in the Columbia Gorge.
Broughton’s documents show that the company estimates a much lower-than-full occupancy: “The occupancy is expected to fluctate from a low of 10-20 percent in the low season to a high of 70-75 percent during the peak season.” Or, in other words, the proposed resort would house more than a thousand people during the summer.
Broughton says it would sell about 30 percent of its units as full-time residences (second homes), the rest selling under a time-share or rental pool arrangement.
Should Broughton Landing win approval one way or the other, Broughton Landing may have a peak season population of about 1,500 windsurfers, shoppers and such. And these wouldn’t be riffraff, no sir. The resort will “target upscale buyers with higher price points than what is currently sold in the area.” They’ll have money and time on their hands, with the resort facilities constructed in great part for people wanting to stay for “weeks at a time.”
What to do with all that time? Well, there will be the spa, of course, and shopping in White Salmon or Hood River; hiking the 14 miles of trails to be constructed; playing at the climbing gym. But a premier selling point will be “direct access to two premier windsurfing launch sites” (The Hatchery and the mill site’s own private 300-foot-long beach, accessable by pedestrian bridge) — creating possibly the world’s first windsurfing resort.
Spadaro writes that the company hopes to integrate Broughton Landing into the Spring Creek Hatchery State Park. The company would add parking, access and irrigation water.
There is no timeline for construction, according to Spadaro. That, he writes, depends on how long the Gorge Commission process takes.
Broughton Landing’s hoped-for population will likely tally up to less than half of what it might have been. Spadaro told officials that the company whittled down its initial plan from 550 residences to the 250 now in its stated plan. That reduction, said Spadaro, came at the urging of the Friends during their meetings this past fall and winter
Negotiations stall out over project size
Those meetings started in September, and included regulators, the U.S. Forest Service, local governments and the Friends.
Then, on March 2, Broughton told Friends the 250-unit plan was what the company needs for Broughton Landing to work, and asked the Friends’ board for an up-or-down vote on whether the watchdog group would support the resort. The Friends’ vote was unanimous: No.
“Despite our continued requests to scale down the size of the proposal, you have made it clear that the current proposal is Broughton’s final offer and that Broughton is unwilling to scale back the proposal in order to make it more compatible with the purposes of the Scenic Area Act,” said the Friends in a March 6 letter to Spadaro and company.
The Friends’ letter stated that the board members were concerned over a number of issues. Broughton Landing, they believe, would require significant rezoning, would exceed the population of several existing urban areas in the Gorge’s Scenic Area, would not limit people from living at the Landing long-term, and the resort proposal “sprawls beyond the existing dedicated industrial site,” their letter said. “Furthermore, there is a risk setting a precedent by amending the management plan to allow such a dramatic change in uses beyond what is currently allowed.”
So, what do the Friends think would be reasonable? The group won’t say. It argues that since the Broughton Landing proposal is the one at hand, and not going to be down-sized through negotiation, “providing a counteroffer at this time would be unfruitful.”
Broughton Landing needs a certain critical mass, says Spadaro.
“Our economist advises that a minimum of 250 units are required to justify redevelopment costs and build of a character and quality that is appropriate for the Columbia River Gorge. … My position is that if the size/scope and quality is reduced, the project would not be economically viable or doomed for failure,” wrote Spadaro in an email to New West. “The last thing anybody should want is a failed attempt at redevelopment.”
In his comments to newspapers and New West, Spadaro says that his company could pursue a “legislative remedy.” What he means is Broughton could lobby Congress to set aside a special new zone inside the Scenic Area for the resort. This essentially pressures the Friends and the Gorge Commission by broadly hinting that should they resist the project too stubbornly, Broughton’s owners could pull political strings to get around an inconvenient land use regulation in the gorge; politics as usual for other places, perhaps, but the sort of thing that could reverberate in unforeseen ways here in the gorge in years to come.
For now, writes Spadaro, “We will be submitting a plan amendment application while continuing discussions with the Friends of the Gorge.”
A crowning achievement?
So what’s holding things up for Broughton Landing?
Or — from a preservationist point of view — how can some (re)developer possibly think that the gorge, with its National Scenic Area protections, is ripe for a full-scale riverside resort outside an urban growth area?
The first question is the sort that Skamania County officials (jobs! and tax money!) might be asking. Skamania County’s unemployment rate is something like 9 percent, so the several dozen potential jobs, not to mention the eight years of construction work, must look mighty attractive. And money speaks loudly, too, and tourists drop something like $50 million a year in Skamania County, and $64 million in Hood River, according to the developer’s research at broughtonlanding.com.
Spadaro complained about National Scenic Area regulations (reported the Columbian article), saying that those would have ruled out ever building Crown Points’s Vista House and the Multnomah Falls Lodge, had the regulations been in place when those were erected. And that’s perhaps so — but that’s hardly reason to greenlight every ambitious development project that comes along. And a resort community is hardly a public amenity like the Vista House.
Broughton Landing, you’re no Crown Point.
That said, the dilapidated Broughton mill is probably the optimal spot for a resort development in the Columbia Gorge for all concerned. It taps into existing, popular windsurfing areas. It’s easy to access. And Broughton Landing would replace eye-sort buildings with new construction (Spadaro writes that the “resort will utilize timbers and beams from the site and retain a historic look and character of the millsite”), and given the decripitude of the old mill, that site has perhaps the least impact imaginable. Really, who’s going to form picket lines or file legal action to protect what’s essentially an abandoned factory? To do so would create a spectacle that would only harden gorge property rights advocates in their scorn for all things preservation-oriented, and also dishearten residents who tend to oppose gorge development.
Not to mention, make instant fodder for every talk-radio host in the nation. (“Listen to this, folks: Those wacky greenies out there in Orygone are protesting to keep a derelict lumber mill!”)
Perception cuts both ways, of course. Spadaro is frustrated, he writes, “that the television reports portrayed us as “developers” rather than long time landowners seeking to utilize our private property.”
It’s an understandable frustration, being cast as a sort of outsider, given that the Broughton Lumber Company has owned the property since the 1920s. But after decades of the status quo, there’s a world of difference between a quietly aging mill and a bustling, high-end resort. A popular resort would create jobs and generate tax dollars, of course, but it would also create costs for the rest of us to pay: More traffic, more people crowding in to the gorge (admittedly they wouldn’t be a huge number of permanent residents, but still), more sewage outflow into the Columbia. These may be relatively small costs, but let’s not allow developers, redevelopers or, more importantly, public officials, to sail by with pie-in-the-sky happy projections.
If Broughton Landing comes to fruition, it should be a painstaking process (albeit, it already has been) — ane one that doesn’t involve political string-pulling. What does it matter if a destination resort takes a year or two (more) of careful vetting? Public officials, at least, shouldn’t be in a hurry; the gorge isn’t going anywhere.