Crescent Bar Island in the Columbia River in Washington.

Federal dam regulators want the approximately 400 condo and homeowners of Crescent Bar Island located on the Columbia River in Washington to leave when their leases expire in 2012, period.

How long they have to clear out is something Grant County PUD staff is studying now. Commissioners will hear staff’s recommendation March 29, according to The Wenatchee World.

In a March 10 letter that appears to quash any possibility of the island residents remaining in their homes, Robert J. Fletcher, an official with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) lays out the agency’s intentions to PUD staff. It states in part:

“… the Commission does not condone residential development and occupancy on project lands, since such residential use is inconsistent with the Commission’s policy of maximizing public recreational development,” Fletcher wrote in the letter. “Consequently, your plan must demonstrate compliance with the commission’s policies on this issue.”

The 160-acre Columbia River island is about 20 miles southeast of Wenatchee. Its use is subject to federal regulation because it falls within the boundaries of the PUD’s Wanapum and Priest Rapids electricity-producing dams.

The PUD’s new federal license to operate the dams obliges the utility to protect the island for scenic quality and enhance it for public recreation and access.

According to the letter, that means a park, natural areas, public beach, boat launch, trail, picnic tables and restrooms can stay and be enhanced.

But island residents have to go, and so do six campsites along the mainland shoreline, near the island’s entrance bridge.

The letter sets an April 30 deadline for PUD staff to describe to federal authorities how they plan to accomplish those goals.

Between the letter and the utility’s license requirements, Kelly Larimer, the PUD’s lands resource manager, said Tuesday (March 16) that it no longer appears to be a question of if the residents can stay, but of when they’ll have to leave.

“We’re going to have to weigh what a reasonable transition period is,” she said of a timeline for getting the residents off the island.

The final decision, and timeline, will fall to commissioners. They’re all looking to staff for recommendations.

“There are options on Crescent Bar, but they definitely lay out that it doesn’t include permanent residence,” Bob Bernd, commission president said Tuesday. “I think it’s only fair that we get on with the process. Some of those people have been there for generations. They’re on pins and needles. It’s up to us to come up with some type of plan to go forward. There’s no way we’re going to make everyone happy.”

According to Commissioner Greg Hansen, a plan might include persuading federal regulators to give the island residents an established number of years to vacate, possibly as long as a decade, to reduce risk of potential leaseholder lawsuits.

PUD attorney Mitch Delabarre said he’s considering the utility’s legal options and is working with staff, but isn’t yet ready to discuss details or potential timelines.

Hansen agrees that the letter limits hoped-for options and blames the current and previous PUD boards for not taking action to prevent permanent island dwellings.

“If you read the intent between the lines of the letter it sounds like they want them off, fairly soon,” Hansen said of the residents.

He added, “It’s going to be hard. This is one of the toughest decision I’ve faced in my years on the commission. We’re looking at a time span in hopes of giving the people the chance to sell, to move off, or whatever. The problem is, when you lease the place, you’ve got to realize that it isn’t forever.”

Commissioner Terry Brewer said it’s too soon to comment before hearing a recommendation from PUD staff.

“We’ll have these discussions with staff. They’ll have the discussions with FERC. We’ll do our best to come up with a proposal that we think FERC will agree to that will be in the best interest of the district long term,” Brewer said.

Commissioner Tom Flint said that the letter “sets the bar” regarding public access and island use.

“At this time, we’re looking at our options,” he said. “We’re still wrestling with the language they put in the letter. It would be premature for me to make any type of decision based on that at this point.”

Commissioner Randy Allred said the letter will oblige the board to act quickly.

“It brings this to a new level of attention,” he said. “We can’t keep talking about it. Something’s going to have to happen.”