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HOOD RIVER, OR-The Columbia River Gorge Commission this week signed off on a policy change that will allow commercial use of historic buildings in the national scenic area, hoping it will provide greater economic incentive to preserve the structures. The new rules open up old farms, granges, schools and other buildings in the gorge to preserve the structures with revenue from “adaptive” commercial enterprises.

The issue was brought to the forerfront by the owners of the Viewpoint Inn, an 80-year-old roadhouse perched above Vista House at Crown Point in Corbett that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The owners applied in January for the right to operate the property as a restaurant, five-room hotel and visitor center, thereby allowing them to raise the necessary funds to make critical repairs before winter.

In mid-October, the Columbia River Gorge Commission discussed approving the Viewpoint Inn for such uses, but instead opted for a sweeping policy change that opens up all historic properties for commercial use. As a result, the owners of the Viewpoint Inn were forced to wait another 30 days while staff drafted the new rules. Commission members on Tuesday voted 10 to 1 to approve the new rules. It will be at least another year or so before the policy change is adopted by the federal government, and that approval could be slowed by opponents of the new rule.

By approving the broader policy change instead of just the Viewpoint Inn, however, the commissioners may be inviting a lawsuit by the Friends of the Columbia Gorge. The group opposes development in the national scenic area in general but was reportedly not opposed to reopening the Viewpoint Inn because it was originally built for commercial use. It views the broader policy change as inconsistent with the National Scenic Act. Michael Lang, the lone “no” vote on the commission, feels the same way, according to public comments.

The bistate gorge commission governs development on most of the land within the 85-mile national scenic area that stretches on both sides of the Columbia from Troutdale to the Deschutes River. A survey by Hood River-based Donovan & Associates reportedly showed 18 buildings in the scenic area that Oregon or Washington have determined are eligible for inclusion on the historic register and 36 more that might be eligible. Historic properties within cities in the scenic area were not included in the survey.

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