The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
The Columbia River Gorge is home to an incredible combination of scenery, geology, rare plants, wildlife, recreational opportunities, and rich human history. National recognition of the importance of the Gorge resulted in creation of the National Scenic Area Act, signed by President Ronald Reagan on November 17, 1986. The Act and its corresponding regulations aim to protect these resources.
The land use rules in the National Scenic Area (NSA) are different from most other places. As a result, first-time builders or property owners in the NSA often have many questions about the development process. This page includes answers to many common questions.
What Resources are Available?
- Skamania County Code Title 22: The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area Ordinance
- Building in the Scenic Area: Scenic Resources Implementation Handbook: A helpful handbook containing information on regulations affecting the visibility of development.
- Recommended Plants for Screening: Lists of recommended plants if you are required to plant additional vegetation to screen your development from Key Viewing Areas.
- National Scenic Area Land Use Application: This is the application form that you will be required to submit for approval of development in the NSA.
- Speak to a Planner: If you would like to discuss a project in the NSA with a county planner, you may call the Community Development Department at (509) 427-3900 to arrange an appointment.
How Will My Proposal Be Reviewed?
Almost all structural development and ground-disturbing activity in the NSA requires some level of review for impacts to cultural, natural, recreation, and scenic resources. Most land use applications are approved, but typically include conditions addressing color, location, landscaping, and protection of natural resources.
- Cultural: Cultural resource surveys are often required before development is approved. Most often, the survey is done by a Forest Service archaeologist at no cost to you. If archaeological or historical resources are present, you must either avoid them or prepare a mitigation plan.
- Natural: Stream, pond and wetland setbacks are evaluated by the County. If your development is within 1,000 feet of a rare plant or sensitive wildlife habitat, state natural resource agencies review the potential impacts to these sensitive areas. Most often, buffer zones are required for riparian areas and rare plants. Management plans may be required when near sensitive wildlife habitat.
- Recreation: If your property is close to an existing recreation site, a buffer may be necessary to ensure new development does not detract from others' use and enjoyment of the site.
- Scenic: Impacts to scenic resources are primarily determined by evaluating your property's "topographic visibility" from a Key Viewing Area. Key Viewing Areas are important roads, trails, recreational sites, and other places where people view Gorge scenery. Topographic visibility means visibility of the property if all vegetation were absent. The County will determine if your site is visible.
How Will Scenic Regulations Affect My Proposal?
If your site is visible from Key Viewing Areas, your development must be "visually subordinate," or blend with the landscape. You are encouraged to design your proposal to fit the landscape, not redesign the landscape to fit your proposal.
- Site selection: Key considerations when selecting a site for new development include:
- To screen development from Key Viewing Areas, choose a site that uses existing vegetation and topography, which are more effective for screening than new landscaping.
- New buildings can be alongside or below a ridge, but not on top. This maintains the natural form of the ridge in the landscape.
- Building and driveway location and design should minimize alterations to the existing topography. Select a level site to support the building pad or design the building to follow the existing grade. Access roads and driveways should follow existing contours as much as possible.
- Building size: All new buildings are required to be compatible with the general scale of existing nearby buildings. New buildings and additions are evaluated by height, square footage, and overall mass and compared to the size of nearby buildings.
- Exterior colors and materials: Color choice greatly influences how well a structure blends with the surrounding landscape. In most cases, the exteriors of new structures (siding, roof, trim, doors) visible from Key Viewing Areas must be dark earth-tone colors found in the surrounding landscape.
- Structures made of shiny or smooth materials can be seen from miles away due to reflectivity and are difficult to blend with their natural surroundings. Metal siding and roofing typically are not allowed. Also, the amount of glass may be limited.
- Planting vegetation for screening: When your proposal does not blend into the landscape using existing vegetation and topography, you may be asked to redesign or plant new vegetation to screen it.
Are There Restrictions on Accessory Buildings?
The total square footage of detached garages, sheds, shop buildings, and other accessory buildings depends on the zoning and acreage of the property. On parcels larger than 10 acres in Agriculture or Forest zones, the combined footprints of all accessory buildings cannot exceed 2,500 square feet and the maximum size for each building cannot exceed 1,500 square feet. For most other situations, the combined footprint of all accessory buildings is limited to 1,500 square feet.
Do Agriculture or Forest Zones Have Special Protections?
Dwellings and other buildings in Agriculture or Forest zones may be subject to additional requirements, such as demonstrating the farm can generate a minimum income, setbacks from adjacent properties, and fire protection standards.
Can I Plant Crops?
If the land you want to plant has never been cultivated or has not been cultivated for more than five years, Skamania County will review your proposed planting for impacts to cultural and natural resources.
What is the Approval Process?
- Submit a complete National Scenic Area Land Use Application. Incomplete applications will not be accepted.
- Review generally takes between seven to nine months, but can be greater depending on the complexity of a proposal. Review for applications that qualify for the expedited review process generally takes three to four months. Only certain, small-scale projects qualify for expedited review. The list of uses that may qualify can be found in Section 22.10.050 of Title 22. Contact the Skamania County Community Development Department to find out for sure if your project can be expedited.
- Once a complete application is submitted, a file will be opened and assigned to a county planner:
- Within twenty calendar days the planner will send a letter notifying the applicant that the application is deemed complete or that additional information is required. The planner will also send copies of the application to the Columbia River Gorge Commission, United States Forest Service (CRGNSA), and for natural resource review to Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife and the Washington Natural Heritage Program (depending on the resources that are within 1,000 ft. of the subject parcel).
- The Agencies listed above have twenty days to submit comments, but may request additional time if needed. The Agencies may also request additional information or reports, such as a Cultural Resource Reconnaissance Survey or a Wildlife Management Plan, if the project falls within a sensitive resource area.
- If a report or additional information is required, then the project is put on hold until the applicant submits the necessary documents to satisfy the code requirements.
- After the County and other agencies have had time to review the application, the County will issue a notice of proposed development review to the owners of property within 500 ft. of the subject parcel, interested agencies, and Native American Tribal Governments for their written comments. Persons receiving notice of a development review application shall have twenty days from the date upon which the notice is mailed to submit written comments, and Tribal governments shall have thirty days.
- After the close of the comment period, the planner will issue an administrative decision on the application including findings of fact and conclusions, and may impose such conditions as determined necessary to ensure consistency with the provisions of this Title.
- The decision shall be final unless a Notice of Appeal is filed within the twenty day appeal period.
- The administrative decision shall be recorded by the applicant in the County deed records prior to commencement of the approved project.
Do I Need a Building Permit?
A building permit is separate from your NSA approval. Most new construction, remodeling, and repair work that affects a building or structure will require a permit. Ask the Building Division to be sure. Once your NSA application is approved you will need to apply to the Building Division for a building permit.