Washington Supreme Court rules in favor of dream house
OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) – In a victory for landowners over scenic preservation advocates, the Washington Supreme Court on Thursday overturned a congressionally empowered agency’s bid to remove a dream house from a bluff overlooking in the spectacular Columbia River Gorge.
The case stretches back to 1996, when Brian and Jody Bea applied to Skamania County to build on property his family had owned for generations. The county approved the land-use permit with conditions designed to protect the scenic value of the area, and the Beas began to build.
But in 1999, with the Bea’s $300,000 house 70 percent finished, the Columbia Gorge Commission invalidated the permit and ordered the county to force the Beas to move the house to a different part of their 40-acre parcel.
The panel said the house violated the terms of the permit and was too visible from some of the region’s most popular viewpoints on the Oregon side of the Columbia River, a violation of the Scenic Area Act. Since then, the house has sat exposed to the elements, uninsulated and unheated, while lawyers argued its fate.
”We had a dream and we began the dream and then it became a nightmare,” said Bea, a physician’s assistant who said he has worked 300 hours a month in recent years to pay rent and the mortgage on the unfinished house. ”Hopefully this nightmare is now ended.”
The county and the Beas challenged the commission’s authority to countermand a building permit that had already been finalized. A lower court ruled against them, but the state Supreme Court reversed that decision.
”We agree with Skamania County and the Beas that the Gorge Commission’s action was without authority of law,” Chief Justice Gerry Alexander wrote for the eight-justice majority. However, the court left open the possibility that the commission could use other methods to try to force changes in the Beas’ house.
The Gorge Commission is a bistate regional agency of Washington and Oregon. It was created in 1986 under a federal law designed to protect the area’s natural resources by controlling growth.
In essence, the court agreed with the Beas’ attorneys that the commission missed its chance by failing to challenge the permit before it was finalized.
”Agencies can’t come in well after the fact,” said Russ Brooks of the Pacific Legal Foundation, an organization that litigates property-rights cases. ”That’s a position that’s way out there in left field.”
But the commission and the Friends of the Columbia Gorge contend the Beas’ application was misleading and the county was lax.
”This case involved a landowner who did not accurately portray his proposed development on his application, and Skamania County issuing a decision that did not accurately describe the impacts of the development and failing to enforce the conditions of that decision,” the commission said in a prepared statement.
The Gorge Commission, responding to complaints about the house, got involved in July 1998, a year after the deadline to appeal the county’s approval.
County officials conceded the Beas violated some of the conditions of his permit, excavating too much dirt and removing trees in front of the home site. Vague wording in the permit also allowed the Beas to build a one-story house to a height of 35 feet, some 10 feet higher than regulators intended, the county said.
”It was actually a three-story house,” said Jeff Litwack, the Gorge Commission’s attorney. ”There’s no way that a house that’s over 30 feet tall can be a one-story house.”
But the county contended the Gorge Commission overstepped its bounds by ordering the invalidation of the permit instead of trying to enforce its conditions.
”We didn’t disagree with the Gorge Commission’s concern about the house, we disagreed with the approach,” said Brad Andersen, the county’s prosecuting attorney.
Brian Bea said he followed the rules, only to become caught in a power struggle between the county and commission.
”You’ve got two different groups of people that don’t like each other and here was a case to fight out who was the biggest rooster in the shed,” Bea said.
While the court’s ruling apparently clears the way for the Beas to complete their house, they could still face other obstacles.
Andersen said the county could still seek enforcement of conditions of the land-use permit, although he said the visual impact of the house has decreased over time. Meanwhile, the Gorge Commission could use its own power to seek fines against the Beas or an injunction to force them to move the house.
”All options are open,” Litwack said.
The case is Skamania County and Brian Bea v. Columbia River Gorge Commission, No. 68602-5.
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