Along the roads that wind through the Columbia River Gorge are waterfalls bursting from the sides of mountains, evergreens soaring to the heavens and majestic bluffs where the explorers Lewis and Clark once stood. And now, amid the spectacular natural beauty, there is what everyone here calls "that house."
Brian Bea started building it two years ago, on a clearing high above the river. It is quite a sight: Perched on 20 acres, the home is three stories high and has four bedrooms, towering windows and glorious views. It can be seen from miles away. And for Bea, who grew up in this rugged area 50 miles east of Portland, Ore., it is a dream come true.
But there is no bigger nightmare these days to environmentalists and many residents in the gorge who say the home, not yet complete, is sure to spoil one of the most beautiful vistas in America. They are battling to stop Bea, and far more is at stake in the epic fight than resolving one man's rights on his property.
The dispute has become one of the most contentious in years over private land in the region. It hinges on an esoteric but important question asked constantly in much of the West: How much power should the federal government have to define, then regulate, nature's beauty?
"This is a microcosm of the West," said Michael Lang, conservation director of the Friends of the Columbia River Gorge, a nonprofit organization based in Portland. "Everyone is wrestling with how much development is too much development, and how the government should strike a balance between the rights of property owners and the serious need to preserve our natural wonders."
Bea, a 28-year-old physician's assistant whose great-grandfather was a pioneer here over a century ago, frames the debate even more bluntly: "This is a complete mess," he said. "And it's really about whether it is constitutional to have a federal group that answers to no one act like dictators on private property."
There was a time when homeowners in these parts could build largely as they saw fit along the 85-mile gorge, which divides Oregon and Washington and still has only a smattering of riverside homes and even less commercial development. But in the mid-1980s, in one of the few staunchly environmental measures he ever signed into law, President Ronald Reagan approved a broad set of regulations designed to protect the gorge's splendor.
The law created an oversight panel known as the Columbia River Gorge Commission and gave it the rare power to overturn county land use decisions. It also mandated that anything built in the gorge would have to be "visually subordinate" to the natural landscape, which is home to the famed 600-foot Multnomah Falls and has become one of the premier tourist attractions in the Pacific Northwest.
The law has stirred great tension ever since, because most land here is privately owned. After Reagan approved the gorge act, Skamania County leaders lowered the flag outside their courthouse to half-staff for a week of symbolic mourning over the federal intervention. But others say the gorge law has struck just the right note: The protections do not ban development, they just force it to conform to the setting. They also are keeping the area attractive to nature-loving visitors. And tourism is about the only industry in the local economy with a pulse, now that many lumber mills have closed.
Even with the restrictions, more than 600 homes have been built along the river gorge over the last decade, all with intense government scrutiny but none with great public uproar.
Bea's home has been controversial from the moment he proposed it. After several lengthy county reviews of his blueprint, which the gorge commission did not formally object to at the time, he received permits to start building a few years ago. But once the house began rising up over the Columbia River, some residents and visitors began complaining.
Conservation groups expressed outrage over its size, style and location. Then gorge commissioners, who are appointed from Oregon and Washington, accused the county of bungling its review of the house so badly that it did not notice the violations on Bea's application papers. Then county officials accused Bea of breaking promises about how the house would look in his request for a permit, a charge he vehemently denies.
The feuding has been long and bitter, and it is getting worse.
Earlier this year, in an extraordinary decision, the gorge commission voted 9 to 1 to overrule the county's decision to let Bea build and ordered him to either move the house to a more discreet site on his property or tear it down.
But Bea, who as a high school student wrote a letter to Reagan urging him to veto the gorge protection law, has not budged. He is living with his wife and their infant son in a rented house in a nearby town, and he is vowing to spend whatever it takes to regain the right to build the home he wants on his land.
"They all had their chance to stop any part of this house from being built when I went through the process exactly like everyone else here does for a permit, and they blew it," Bea said. "They just can't decide to come after me now that the house is almost up. It's ridiculous, and it's unconstitutional."
The case is headed to state court this summer, and it is becoming a cause celebre for western property rights advocates and environmentalists. Bea, who is barred from working on the house until the dispute is resolved, is represented by a powerful conservative law firm, the Pacific Legal Foundation, which says it is willing to take the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Groups such as the Friends of the Columbia Gorge, meanwhile, say that letting even one home skirt the gorge regulations would open the door to more development that mars the scenic landscape. A giant outlet mall and fast-food restaurants already line the road just outside the protected area.
"We just cannot let this one slide," said Kevin Gorman, executive director of the Friends of the Columbia Gorge, which has blocked other proposed housing in the gorge in recent years. "There is too much at risk here. That law is the only thing protecting the gorge from sprawl."
Bea has local supporters; the pioneer spirit and disdain for government meddling are alive and well here. The Skamania County Pioneer News has editorialized in his favor. But other gorge homeowners who have gone through the hassle and expense of complying with the building restrictions are upset with Bea.
"We couldn't get away with anything, so why should he?" asked North Cheatham, an apple farmer who lives near the banks of the Columbia. "The regulations on homes are not overly burdensome."
One issue over which both sides are fighting hard is exactly what the law's call for "visually subordinate" homes means. Defining the bureaucratic phrase seems to be as hard as defining beauty itself. In his lawsuit against the commission, Bea calls the term unconstitutionally vague.
"This is a situation where two rival government bureaucracies are fighting over a very subjective definition, and the Beas are caught in the middle," said John Groen, Bea's attorney.
So far, every attempt to reach a compromise has failed. The Friends of the Columbia Gorge found a moving company that agreed to shift the entire house to a spot away from the bluff overlooking the river for a discounted price of about $40,000. The gorge group also has told Bea that it would pay half of the bill.
"He could be living in the house already by now, and he could still have a heck of a view," Lang said. But Bea has refused the offer, saying it is too risky, too expensive, and too far from where he wants the house.
CAPTION: Brian and Jody Bea, whose three-story, four-bedroom house, left, on a bluff above the Columbia River in Prindle, Wash., has fed the controversy over the government's right to regulate the use of private land, confer during a meeting of the Columbia River Gorge Commission, a federal body, in January.