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Columbia County commission, environmentalists again debate rezone at Port Westward

Port Westward

Port Westward near Clatskanie.

CLATSKANIE — The proposed rezone of 837 acres at Port Westward from farmland to industrial is again moving forward, and a potential methanol plant lease hangs in the balance.

The Columbia County Board of Commissioners gave tentative approval July 14 to the Port of Columbia County’s request to rezone the land from agricultural to industrial. Northwest Innovation Works, which recently canceled its plans to build a methanol refinery at the Port of Kalama, signed an option to lease agreement with the port for the rezoned area in 2019.

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Commissioner Margaret Magruder said the rezone would boost a struggling local economy, and she’s “looking forward to agriculture and industry being able to work together.”

Local environmental groups said adding industrial plants to sensitive wetland and farmland would harm the area.

“Removing zoning protections for over 800 acres of primarily high-value farmland is no way to thank farmers for their ongoing contributions to our state,” Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, working lands engagement manager at 1000 Friends of Oregon, said in a Columbia Riverkeeper press release.

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The board’s decision will not be final until all parties have been notified in writing, as the rezone has been the subject of legal appeals and arguments between the port, county and environmental groups since 2013. Dan Serres, conservation director for Columbia Riverkeeper, said they plan to appeal the rezone again.

“We continue to think the port and county did not do an adequate analysis to show that a massive methanol refinery would be compatible with high-value farms and the nearby wetlands,” Serres said.

The question of rezoning first came up in 2013, and in 2018 the board of commissioners again approved it. Columbia Riverkeeper and 1000 Friends of Oregon argued the rezone doesn’t match Oregon’s statewide planning goal to protect farmland and challenged it on nine legal points, bringing it to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals.

In 2019, the Oregon Supreme Court upheld the Board of Appeals decision that dismissed eight of those points, leaving the question of if the planned industrial uses of the land would be compatible with adjacent uses such as farming.

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The Board of Appeals told the port to address the question, and the port submitted a compatibility report in July 2020 finding that the uses were or could be made compatible. County land use staff reviewed it and recommended approval.

“Staff find the port’s analysis to be accurate, thorough, convincing and consistent with this remand review,” County Planning Division Manager Matt Laird said at the July meeting. “The evidence and facts in the record show impacts can be rendered compatible with mitigation measures.”

Serres said he is “convinced the port and county ran afoul of Oregon land use law by not taking a more serious look at the compatibility contradiction” and that the analysis “didn’t clear the bar for what LUBA had already asked them to do.”

In the public comment period, Columbia County received more than 1,600 pages of comments on the rezone. Some drew attention to the family-wage jobs the rezone could create, while others worried about the potential environmental consequences.

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Representatives of the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development both wrote that the port’s application did not adequately address the specific agricultural practices present on adjacent lands.

Commissioner Henry Heimuller said all the public comment showed there’s “good solid due process” and he supported the rezone, because “it’s the potential and the future that we have to look at.”

Hopville Farms blueberry farmer Jim Hoffmann is located near the rezone area and called the decision a “travesty” in a Riverkeeper press release.

“The Port and the County are turning back the clock on Oregon’s land use progress with plans to pave over wetlands on the floodplains of the Lower Columbia River,” he said. “The Port’s plans will put at serious risk high-value blueberry farms and other high-value crops.”

Commissioner Magruder said the rezone could be a boon, because “as someone who’s been involved in agriculture my entire life, I often say that after land use rules came to Oregon that one of the hardest thing to do on PA-80 (agriculture-zoned) land is to make a living.”

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Commissioner Casey Garrett said he felt the report “did a good, thorough job pointing out the compatibility” and that he was “very comfortable” with the rezone. He added that as Oregon is “one of the most stringent states” when it comes to environmental regulation, any project on the land would have to prove compatibility.

“The federal and local requirements that someone will have to jump through for future development is a stringent process,” Garrett said. “We’re witnessing that happening right now at Port Westward. It’s one heck of a process, so I feel pretty darn confident that future development activities out there will have to go through a more of a process than I would maybe prefer.”

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