Environmentalists oppose wakeboard park in Gorge

Jeff Barnard / The Associated Press
Published Aug 1, 2012 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

Developer Bob Naito thought he was putting together a green project that would fit great with the outdoor recreation so popular in Hood River, known for world-class windsurfing, craft beer and fruit orchards in the Columbia Gorge.

Portland-based Naito Development LLC plans to build a waterfront hotel and commercial building — both certified as sustainable — along with Oregon’s first wakeboarding park in a cove that had to go through a major pollution cleanup in 2006 after a barge-building works closed down.

Naito Development is known for its work on certified sustainable and historic buildings. Bob Naito’s late father had a Portland street named after him for his visionary projects.

But some environmentalists are trying to scuttle the Hood River project. And the objections are most vehement against the wakeboarding park, where people on wakeboards and water skis are pulled around by cables powered by electric motors.

They have appealed the City Council’s approval of the project to a state land use board, and are threatening to file a federal lawsuit claiming the project threatens endangered salmon and clean water in the Columbia River. Notices of intent to sue argue the project would send dirty stormwater runoff into the river, and take away a resting spot for young salmon migrating to the ocean.

“In many ways it is a battle for the soul of Hood River,” said Brent Foster, the attorney for Friends of the Hood River Waterfront, Center for Biological Diversity and Northwest Environmental Defense Center.

Foster is the former executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper and was the top environmental aide to former state Attorney General John Kroger. Foster resigned and was suspended from the bar for 30 days after admitting he lied when he denied taking a water sample to support a criminal pollution case against a Hood River juice factory. He lives in a community just outside Hood River.

He particularly objects to plans to build what is also known as a cable park in a sheltered area regularly used by kayakers, paddleboarders and local triathletes.

“Windsurfing, kiteboarding and mountain biking and other nonmotorized sports have been Hood River’s bread and butter,” he said. “Cable parks are along the lines of what you find in Daytona Beach.

“They really are the antithesis of what Hood River’s recreational economy has been based on. Instead of improving the quality of life, you are having this spider’s web of cables supported by five-story metal cranes that really detract from the quality of life and the reasons people come to the gorge.”

Hood River was a fruit farming and timber town when the collapse of the timber industry put it on hard times in the 1980s. Then world-class windsurfers like Maui Meyer discovered it, and it has become a destination for outdoor recreation. Former presidential candidate John Kerry windsurfed there.

Meyer, who is now a county commissioner, owns a real estate office, and is a partner in a downtown restaurant, said he stood “shoulder to shoulder” with Foster on a variety of conservation issues over the years, but disagrees with his arguments against the project. Meyer said there is a shortage of hotel and office space in town that the project would address. He is helping Naito lease the office space in the commercial building slated for the site.

“When they start throwing around things like the Endangered Species Act to stop a small development on an ex-brownfield that sits within the city limits of Hood River, you have to ask you self, what is the real reason they are doing this?” he said. “It feels to me like a bit of a hijacking.”

Naito said he bought the former Nichols Boat Works site in 2007 after the state finished cleaning it up, and originally planned to build a marina along with the hotel and commercial building. But flooding deposited a sandbar that closed off the site from the river. Then someone in Hood River suggested the idea of the cable park, which he had never heard of.

“It replaces all those wakeboarding ski-boats, so it seemed to us it was a pretty clever environmental thing that kind of fit in with Hood River ... because there are a lot of days in Hood River when, notwithstanding its reputation, there is no wind.”

Naito said the wakeboard park would serve as a draw that would help make the hotel and commercial building profitable in less time, but ultimately, the project can stand without it.

“We thought we had a great little sustainable resort community in a great little town,” he said. “We thought we’d met everybody and we’d done all the things my dad taught me when he was alive — to do a good project, it has to be both successful financially, and also be good for the community.

“We just ran into Mr. Foster.”