Renegade house with a view - for now

  • A controversial house overlooks the Columbia Gorge

    Ross Hamilton/The Oregonian

The three-story cedar house with its tall windows and panoramic views stands boldly on an open bluff near the rim of the Columbia River Gorge, where its prominence defies a federal law that says it should not be there.

Since the house went up last year, it has become a test of the 13-year-old National Columbia River Gorge Scenic Act, which Congress passed to block this kind of visual intrusion on the landscape. Brian and Jody Bea's dream house has been the subject of scores of newspaper editorials and plenty of finger-pointing by the couple and the two government agencies involved - Washington's Skamania County and the bi-state Columbia Gorge Commission.

From anywhere along an eight-mile stretch of the Columbia River, including Oregon's most-visited tourist attraction, Multnomah Falls, the Bea house, now 70 percent complete, is clearly visible to anyone in the gorge below. It is not "visually subordinate" to the surrounding landscape, as the gorge scenic act requires.

Skamania County planner Kari Fagerness says that if the Beas had followed the 33 conditions attached to their building permit, controversy never would have erupted. Instead, she said, the family misled the county by submitting a plan for a well-screened, one-story house with a daylight basement and loft, and then built a three-story house that exceeds height limitations and stands too close to the edge of the scenic gorge.

Bea admits cutting down most of the trees that were supposed to screen the house and bulldozing enough dirt to fill 100 dump trucks, but he denies misleading county planners.

Now, he faces an order issued last month by the Columbia Gorge Commission, instructing him to move the house to another location on the property within six months. The Pacific Legal Foundation, which advocates for private-property rights, stepped into the fray when it offered to fight the order on Bea's behalf for free. Bea remains defiant.

"Until they take this to the highest judge in the land, and that judge tells me and the American people that my building permit is no good, and my approved building plan is no good, I'm not doing anything," says the 28-year-old Bea.

The nonprofit Friends of the Columbia Gorge had offered to help pay for moving the house, but it withdrew its offer when Bea promised a legal fight.

"They have no interest in resolving this. It's no longer just an issue of a landowner who wants a view," says Kevin Gorman, the group's director. "It's an issue of an effort to dismantle the national scenic area act."

A big house slips through

The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, established by the 1986 act, encompasses 292,615 acres and 83 miles of the Columbia Gorge, including portions of six counties in Oregon and Washington. Seventy percent of it, however, is privately owned. The 12-member gorge commission reviews all building permit applications in the scenic area for compliance with its management plan. Yet somehow the Bea house slipped through.

Testimony at a November hearing revealed some of the reasons: The Beas violated their permit, even beginning construction before it was issued. The Skamania County Commission approved a questionable permit and failed to enforce it as the house was going up. Moreover, the gorge commission's staff failed to question the permit or to visit the site during its review - even though planners knew of the property's high visibility.

Skamania County has been a hotbed of opposition to the gorge scenic act since its inception. County officials succeeded in getting the gorge commission's budget slashed by the Washington Legislature. Skamania County has benefited handsomely from the National Scenic Act, however. The federal law authorized $5 million for the lavish Skamania Lodge hotel and conference center, now the county's largest employer.

Supporters of the act worry that the Bea house could set a precedent and open the door to luxury houses throughout the gorge. But Michael Lang of Friends of the Columbia Gorge says the law is on their side. He predicts that if the Beas go ahead with a legal challenge, they will lose, and the act will stand.

Lang says the dispute could have been resolved in a few months, allowing the family to finish their dream home in a new location. "If this is dragged through the courts, it could be years, and the final result is that the house will have to be moved anyway."

The writer freelances from Portland, Oregon.

You can contact ...

* Columbia River Gorge Commission, P.O. Box 730, White Salmon, WA 98672 (509/493-3323);

* Friends of the Columbia River Gorge, 319 SW Washington St., Suite 301, Portland, OR 97204 (503/241-3762);

* Pacific Legal Foundation, 10800 NE Eighth St., Suite 325, Bellevue, WA 98004 (425/635-0970).

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