County officials hope a tour by new Department of State Lands director will ease frustrations

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - The levee system in Scappoose, and across North Coast counties, are being required to go through a re-certification process, a lengthy and complicated issue that was brought up over and over again with DSLs new director Mary Abrams on a recent tour.The Oregon Department of State Lands is not the largest agency Columbia County officials have to deal with, but, said director Mary Abrams, “We’re one of the ones that can pose the biggest delays if things don’t go well.”

Abrams, who joined DSL in November 2012, recently went on a tour of the North Coast counties, hoping to gain perspective on the variety of issues facing local governments and agencies. The state agency is tasked with managing navigable waterways and submerged and submersible land in Oregon. With the North Coast and Columbia County’s proximity to the Columbia River, this is an important area, Abrams said.

It has not always been the best working relationship when it comes to determining ownership or working with other agencies to issue needed permits, say county officials.

“If it will float a leaf, they consider it navigable,” said County Commissioner Tony Hyde at a County Commission meeting Jan. 23, echoing some of this frustration. Before they met Abrams on Jan. 24, Hyde and Commissioner Henry Heimuller said they hoped she would turn out to be someone they could work with.

“There’s got to be a better way of resolving these issues,” Hyde said, referencing past issues over land ownership in Clatskanie.

When Abrams came through Columbia County Jan. 24, everyone from city administrators to port officials had projects in mind and questions to ask the new director.

Port Westward developments and levee re-certification were at the top of the list. If the dikes are not brought up to the new standards required at the federal level, a whole swathe of otherwise developable and residential properties in Scappoose become designated as flood plain, said Scappoose City Manager Jon Hanken.

While DSL is not directly involved in this process, “as we start moving forward, they get an earful,” Hanken said.

Port officials took Abrams on a tour of the Port Westward property in Clatskanie and discussed projects beyond that property, including what they anticipate for future expansion at the Scappoose Bay Marina and a feasibility study for how to best capitalize on Columbia City’s river access.

In the two years Port Director Patrick Trapp has worked with DSL, he said he has found the agency to be direct and professional. While there have been challenges and disagreements, he thinks they’ve always been able to strike good compromises.

In Abrams, Trapp hopes to find an ally and advocate.

“I felt very optimistic that a good relationship could only get better,” he said. He was encouraged by her desire to see projects and sites in person and to listen to a multitude of requests, complaints and questions.

“I think that goes a tremendous way,” Trapp said. “She’s putting herself out there.”

Following the Jan. 24 meeting with Abrams, Hyde was also optimistic.

“I think it shows they’re coming in very open-minded,” he said.

Part of Gov. John Kitzhaber’s goals is for agencies to work together more fluidly, Abrams said. Sometimes hiccups occur during projects which require approval from both DSL and the federal U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. There are different priorities and different mandates, Abrams said.

While she does not yet have answers for how counties navigate these difficulties, she says increased communication is key, especially where DSL decisions can affect those working in agriculture along waterways such as the Columbia River.

Abrams also hopes to see DSL staff members improve communication and information-sharing with the communities they serve.

During her tour, she traveled with State Sen. Betsy Johnson and Reps. Deborah Boone and Brad Witt, a fact she brought people’s attention to over and over again.

“As an agency, we get handed statutes and rules and we implement them,” she said. She encouraged people to reach out to state legislators if they think these rules should be changed.

Johnson said the tour marked a departure from how DSL often interacts with the counties, and emphasized what Johnson sees as the need for increased coordination between the state and the federal government.

“She’s getting a chance to hear about the issues in a very unvarnished way,” Johnson said about Abrams. “We got an awful lot of stuff accomplished.”

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