“Imagine the possibilities.”
That’s what Brad Fisher ponders when he considers what the Columbia River shoreline could look like if it was in the hands of local jurisdictions and not the federal government.
The senior vice president of RBC Wealth Management has teamed up with retired U.S. Congressman Doc Hastings and Gary Petersen, CEO of Petersen Consulting, to build community support for their plan to transfer river shoreline ownership and maintenance from the Army Corps of Engineers to the cities and counties.
The land fell into federal control following a devastating flood in 1948, estimated by historians to have caused more than $500 million in damages in today’s dollars.
“We think this is an issue that is so transformational for the Tri-Cities,” Fisher said.
At stake are 34 miles of shoreline in Franklin and Benton counties starting at the bridge to Walla Walla County on the Franklin County side, up to the canal across the water from Hanford’s 300 Area. It also stretches from the Benton County side from near Finley, north to where the city of Richland meets Department of Energy land.
“We’re not asking the Corps to give us permission,” Hastings said. “Congress is specifically writing legislation that says these Corps lands will be reconveyed back to the respective communities. There’s a huge difference. We call that getting away from the ‘Mother, may I?’ ”
The group believes the time is now for this change in ownership so public access to the river can be improved through increased recreational offerings.
Fisher, Hastings and Petersen said local entities could clean up the rivershores and lower the levees, which would beautify the area and encourage more people to use the natural resources. They said the effort also could allow for the possibility of future residential or commercial development.
“Some people think of this as an attempt to line both sides of the river with condos. But it’s not that at all,” Fisher said. “It’s leading with recreation, and other things might fill in using zero taxpayer dollars that might actually fund a lowering of the dikes and improving of the waterfront.”
Not all in favor of plan
Environmentalists like Ginger Wireman believe in “zero private shorelines.” She is a local Strong Towns activist. The national nonprofit aims to help cities, towns and neighborhoods become financially strong and resilient.
“Maybe we approach it as a partnership with the Corps. I don’t think the cities or the counties have the ability to manage this. And what would we give up to let that happen? Parks? Roads?” she asked.
Fisher contended the “Corps doesn’t have park management or land management in their mission” and has “not put $1 toward maintenance and operation or capital improvement of the shoreline” in the past 30 years.
Fisher recalled when he was mayor of Kennewick in 1988 and Benton County determined maintenance of Columbia Park was a “budget buster.” It handed over control of the park to Kennewick and Richland, with the majority in Kennewick’s hands, while Richland’s responsibility covers the west end just past the Reach museum.
Finding community support
It was when the Reach opened four years ago that Fisher first raised the issue of reconveyance with U.S. Sen. Patty Murray.
He recalled asking, “Isn’t it time, with the construction of all the dams and dikes along the Columbia River, to return these lands, that were once privately-controlled, back to local control?”
He said the senator agreed to support it, if there also was community support, but wanted to make sure local entities were aware of the potential price tag that comes with maintaining the land.
Fisher’s group argues the local jurisdictions are already paying $2 million annually for maintenance, and the construction of additional dams and levees make it nearly impossible to experience a flood of similar magnitude to 1948’s.
Since asking that question in 2014, Fisher and others began a campaign to demonstrate community support by meeting and informing local stakeholders about the issue. One of Fisher’s first stops was to ask for Hastings’ backing, as he was still in Congress at the time. Petersen also was in his longtime role as the vice president of federal programs for the Tri-City Development Council, or TRIDEC, before his retirement last year.
Fisher calls them “the grandfathers of reconveyance” for their work with the Department of Energy to transfer land at Hanford back to TRIDEC shortly before Hastings left office.
The group said it has met with every elected body at least twice, along with Visit Tri-Cities, Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce, TRIDEC, Water Follies and service groups, like Rotary and Kiwanis clubs.
Fisher described the response as “tremendous support, throughout. Some has been stronger than others, admittedly, but we have not met one group that has been in opposition.”
One group voicing opposition is the Lower Columbia Basin Audubon Society and its conservation chair Dana Ward.
“Although it seems like a Tri-Cities’ right to have this land, this is also part of the nation’s land. Whether you’re from Pennsylvania or Florida, we see this as a larger interest,” Ward said.
Ward worries that promises to provide public access and protection for environmental resources would give way to pressure from developers.
“We really feel that the Corps has the better resources. It’s not going to be pushed around by local interests,” Ward said.
Richland homeowner Jim Simpson lives alongside the Columbia River and while he said he doesn’t trust the Corps, he also would like to see the shoreline remain untouched.
He lives on Gowen Avenue in a home his family first bought in the early 1950s. The home was temporarily moved to the middle of the street to allow truck access to build the dikes following the 1948 flood. The house has a roof-height porch to allow a view of the water that’s currently obscured by the raised pathways running alongside the river.
Simpson remembered when his family used to barbecue on Columbia River docks or launch water skiers from them until the Corps required all docks removed back in the 1950s. He said he enjoys the current status of the shoreline and doesn’t see the need for improvement.
“I say leave it the way it is,” he said.
With more waterfront homes on the Pasco side of the river, reconveyance proponents know the community would have some decisions to make if the land is transferred back. That could include whether homeowners would now have the first right to purchase the land, and, if so, what they would have to pay for it.
“Once you get access to the river, believe me, that property value is going to go up,” Hastings said. “But those are decisions we’re not making with this legislation. The community is going to have to decide, I think, how they’re going to deal with all this.”
Fisher returns to his vision of imagining the possibilities and points to the development of Osprey Pointe after the Port of Pasco requested Hastings’ assistance, while in office, to remove the easement in place with the Corps.
It allowed for a riverfront business center to be built on one of the last remaining levee-free shorelines in the Tri-Cities. Osprey Pointe has hosted evening events with outdoor movies and food trucks while offering views of a summer sunset over the river.
“It’s an example of what could happen when you get the Corps out of the picture,” Hastings said.
The next step is to introduce the legislation and schedule a hearing. The group wants the issue included in the National Defense Authorization Act because legislation was included by U.S. Congressman Dan Newhouse in the last act.
“Now there may be a few legislative hurdles that we have to address, but we think we can do that,” Hastings said.
The men said one of the questions they frequently hear from stakeholders is “what do the tribes think of this?”
Hastings points out that “no tribal lands are involved in this reconveyance.”
“Before the land transfer, it was all privately-owned,” Petersen said.
But considering the skeleton known as the Ancient One, or Kennewick Man, was found on the Columbia River shoreline in Kennewick in 1996, the group realizes there may be input coming. They haven’t heard it thus far because they say tribes generally deal exclusively with the federal government and not local government entities.
“We anticipate when this legislation is introduced, the tribes will have something to say,” Hastings said. “What they have to say, we have no idea.”
Wireman said she remains suspicious about the plan. “I do not trust that they are in a position to properly manage and do anything more than they already have. Why haven’t they had large public meetings and begun a public engagement process?” she said.
Fisher said he sees reconveyance as an opportunity to improve, rather than exploit, the riverfront. And this could include a reduction in size of Columbia Park.
“A park that’s about half the size would actually be a better park for the public. (Kennewick) would be able to improve it and maintain it better. So what happens to the land? Instead of the Corps saying you can’t even put up a sign, imagine next to the Reach, you’d possibly have a hotel or restaurant.”
“Or an aquatic center, or tennis courts,” Petersen said.
The group wants to assure the public that any future development would still need federal approval before being allowed.
“The federal laws don’t go away when the property is transferred to the community,” Petersen said. “If the community does anything with it, they still have to meet all federal requirements, including the cultural preservation act, the National Environmental Policy Act, etc.”
Newhouse’s office confirmed that he supports the effort and is working to include it in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act, which is typically passed in November or December.
So, the lands could potentially be transferred back to the city by the end of this year.