Lawsuit Challenging Under Canvas Approval

White Salmon, Washington—A lawsuit has been filed in Klickitat County Superior Court challenging a recent decision by the Klickitat County Hearing Examiner approving a 95-unit luxury “glamp-ground” on Oak Ridge Road, approximately three miles north of the intersection of Oak Ridge Road and SR-141, adjacent to the White Salmon National Scenic River. The lawsuit was filed by Klickitat Land Preservation Fund (“KLPF”), Friends of Oak Ridge, and Dennis and Bonnie White on September 2, 2021. Over the course of a two-day hearing in July of this year, Hearing Examiner Andy Kottkamp heard extensive testimony from the plaintiffs and their experts concerning the risk of wildfire associated with the luxury resort, and its extensive traffic impacts on a stretch of road that falls dramatically short of county transportation standards. The project was universally opposed by area residents speaking at the hearing. The Hearing Examiner approved the proposal over these objections on August 17, 2021.

The lawsuit alleges violations of Washington’s State Environmental Policy Act (“SEPA”), the purpose of which is to ensure that local agencies adequately assess environmental impacts before permits are issued. “The decision fails to address public safety,” said Bryan Telegin, counsel for KLPF. “The county itself has acknowledged that the project requires a detailed fire evacuation plan, and that the risk of wildfire is very real. That plan should be evaluated before permits are issued, not after. But no such plan has been provided.” The size of the proposed resort would be unprecedented in Klickitat County, coming on the heels of the worst fire seasons in recent history.

Dennis White, board member of KLPF, also spoke to the dramatic increase in traffic. “Oak Ridge Road isn’t built for a nearly 18-fold increase in traffic,” White said. “Right now, the road is used primarily by locals who are familiar with the sharp curves, steep grades, and blind corners. Adding hundreds of cars per day by people who don’t know the road is dangerous.” Multiple experts opined that the combination of increased traffic and poor road conditions poses an especially big risk in the event of fire. Ross Tilghman, one of the plaintiff’s traffic consultants, calculated that the line of cars attempting to flee the resort would likely stretch over a mile in length, potentially trapping area residents in their homes and preventing fire-fighting assets from reaching the area.

The luxury resort would also adversely affect the Western Gray Squirrel (“WGS”), a Washington State listed threatened species. In Washington, Klickitat County is the only county with sufficient oak-conifer habitat to sustain this species, and the resort would be located within an area identified by the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife as crucial to the species’ recovery. According to the plaintiff’s wildlife expert, Dr. Katy Stuart, “[t]he proposed Under Canvas resort has the potential to increase key identified threats to WGS in Washington State, including habitat destruction and degradation from development and forest management, roadkill mortality, and wildfire risk.” Yet, the county and Under Canvas failed performed critical wildlife surveys to determine current distribution. According to Dr. Stuart, “there is a lack of sufficient information to determine that this project is not likely to cause significant environmental impact to WGS.”

The project proponent—Under Canvas, Inc.—has also filed a lawsuit challenging the Hearing Examiner’s decision. The lawsuit filed by Under Canvas alleges that conditions placed on the project are too strict. Among its claims, Under Canvas seeks to undo conditions requiring it to report water usage, to provide bi-annual reports demonstrating compliance with county standards, requiring flammable materials to be stored properly, and requiring Under Canvas to comply with local burn bans. Under Canvas representative, Dan McBreaty, agreed to many of the challenged conditions at the July hearing before Mr. Kottkamp.