Erosion barriers follow path of Phelps Creek several feet back from its channel.
County and state officials say illegal activity on adjoining parcels of property west of Hood River led to a cease and desist order on one property, and attempts to close the barn door (after the cow got out) on the other.
The properties involved include:
- A 12.5-acre parcel owned by Andy Von Flotow, doing business as Westend Lands LLC, southwest across Country Club Road from the Timbercrest Condominium complex. The Department of State Lands on Nov. 3 issued a cease and desist order to stop work on the property because “unauthorized fill and/or removal on the property … presents an imminent and substantial risk of injury, loss or damage to water resources of the state.”
- A 16-acre parcel owned by Dave Ryan of Ryan Holdings LLC. As first reported locally by The Buzz on Aug. 25, Walmart sold the 16-acre property to Dave Ryan and Ryan Holdings LLC this summer, several years after failure to gain approval for a 185,000-square-foot Super Center project.
Rock retaining wall and drainage channel near where Von Flotow property meets Ryan property.
About a month after Ryan acquired the property, in early October, crews showed up with chainsaws, large excavating equipment and an agenda. They began removing most of the standing trees and piling the trunks into large brush piles.
Several inquiries to county and city planning officials triggered investigation.
Clearing on the Ryan property continued to within feet of the flow channel of Phelps Creek, which snakes across the property, beneath Country Club Road and ultimately drains into the Columbia River at Wah Gwin Gwin falls near the Columbia Gorge Hotel.
Work stopped shortly after a large pile of fill dirt was deposited near where the creek passes beneath Frankton Road.
Cindy Walbridge, planning director for the city of Hood River, visited the Ryan property on Oct. 9 even though the city has no jurisdiction until the property is annexed to the city. In the meantime, Hood River County has oversight.
Walbridge said the activity on Ryan’s property saddened her.
“I was just sick,” she said.
“I called David Ryan and said ‘What did you do?’ The damage is done, but he said he would reclaim the flood plain and replant. I’m not sure what that will look like.”
How did all this happen? On one hand, it’s simple: City and county planning officers don’t get involved until someone walks in their door and proposes development.
“We don’t have much we can do before someone applies for something,” says Walbridge.
“The state can help us with the Department of State Lands and Department of Environmental Quality if the property owner starts working with wetlands.”
Stumps show extent of tree removal adjacent to and into channel of Phelps Creek.
Rules, for instance, require a permit from DSL before moving or removing more than 50 cubic yards of material from the bed or banks of “waters of the state.”
In a Nov. 2 letter to Von Flotow, Heidi Hartman, aquatic resource coordinator for the DSL, said “waters of the state” include the Pacific Ocean, rivers, lakes, ponds and wetlands. Her letter cited concerns about an earth and rock retaining wall near a waterway on the Von Flotow property that drains north toward Country Club Road.
As for the Ryan property, John Roberts, county development and planning director, said “there were a number of reasons things fell through the cracks.”
“The first thing is, he didn’t ask anyone for permission,” Roberts said.
Until someone presents development plans, the county has little reason to engage with the property owner.
A pile of fill dirt sits just back from the Phelps Creek stream channel near intersection of Frankton and Country Club roads west of Hood River.
“With a development plan, then the ball is in our court,” he said. “It gives you the ability through the code and review criteria to get after it. But the counties aren’t the dirt police.”
He said Ryan told the county he was just moving dirt. Move enough dirt, in the wrong place, and it triggers the county’s flood plain ordinance.
One floodplain zone provision requires a permit before any “dredging, filling, paving, grading or excavation.”
Another provision of the county floodplain zone notes that tree removal must follow the state Forest Practices Act, which requires a 50-foot vegetation buffer along streams.
“He was able to slip through the cracks,” Roberts said. “He did go over the edge. The stream setback is uniform in our code at 50 feet. He went up to the edge … and in.”
Roberts said the county is working to get Ryan “on a path to compliance.”
“That involves us, DEQ and the Department of State Lands,” he said. “That took a lot of effort to get all three coordinated out there, and aware of what happened.”
Greg Svelund, spokesperson for the DEQ, said the agency is mailing a “pre-enforcement” notice to Ryan. He said Ryan faces a fine of around $4,000 for failure to get the required permit.
Neither Ryan nor Von Flotow has responded to calls placed Nov. 13 for their side of the story.
The puzzle has one key element missing. Ryan’s property lies in a regulatory gray zone, just outside the Hood River city limits, but inside its urban growth boundary. County code specifically exempts properties in that gray area from its current stream protection overlay (Section 42.05 – Applicability / B.”This Article does not apply to streams or lakes within … the Hood River and Cascade Locks urban growth areas.”).
Roberts said the county had intended for years to update its code to extend its stream protection overlay to cover those lands, but it just hadn’t happened.
Roberts, who took over from retired county planning director Mike Benedict earlier this year, could only speculate as to why that regulatory gap hadn’t been addressed, inferring budget and staffing challenges.
“If it had been adopted, we wouldn’t have been such a toothless tiger,” he says.
“That’s what put us on our heels. It will be adopted soon, you better believe it.”