Rebuffing attempts by Columbia Riverkeeper to block a $1.7 million transaction, Cowlitz Superior Court Judge Gary Bashor upheld on Tuesday the 2017 sale of Woodland’s Kuhnis Road property from the state Department of Natural Resources to the Port of Woodland, which hopes to one day use the property to develop a multi-million dollar deep-water access terminal at Austin Point.
The decision comes after a year and a half of court battles over the sale, which critics argued overlooked crucial environmental and wildlife concerns.
“It was our best hope,” Port of Woodland Executive Director Jennifer Wray-Keene said on Friday. “We were incredibly pleased with the judge’s ruling and the clarity he provided to the land transaction. ... We had been going through this land transaction since 2015, so to have some finality to it is a great relief.”
The sale has not gone through yet: Riverkeeper has one month to appeal the court’s decision, and the sale cannot close until that appeal process closes, Wray-Keene said. Riverkeeper Senior Attorney Miles Johnson said Riverkeeper is considering appealing Bashor’s ruling.
“It’s unfortunate that the DNR couldn’t have been more open with the public about what its decision to sell off land means for that land, for the wildlife that uses it, and for the public recreation that occurs on it,” Johnson said. “This land sale is the first step toward industrial development. There’s no real controversy about that. And DNR should have explained to the public the purpose of this land sale and the steps that would follow.”
Bashor’s ruling only clears the sale of the property. Future developments at Austin Point must undergo environmental impact reviews.
The port plans to build a rail line from its Austin Point property to the main BNSF Railway line, which would make Austin Point the port’s first deep-water access site with rail access, but it needs access through the Kuhnis Road property. The port says it hopes to attract a large-scale industrial client that could generate millions of dollars in revenue and dozens of new jobs for the small but growing Southwest Washington port.
In late 2017, after two years of negotiations, the State Board of Natural Resources greenlighted the sale of the 153.3 acres of agricultural land to the Port of Woodland. The Kuhnis Road Property lies northeast of where the Lewis and Columbia rivers meet outside Woodland city limits.
The Port of Woodland commission passed a resolution earlier that year banning fossil fuel and toxic waste projects from the property in 2017. That resolution helped earn the support of the Cowlitz Tribe, but not Riverkeeper, which filed a lawsuit against DNR, State Board of Natural Resources and public lands commissioner Hilary Franz, arguing that the sale violated the state Public Lands Act and Environmental Policy Act.
Riverkeeper, a Hood River, Ore.-based group funded largely through donations and grant money, has built a track record of using state and federal environmental protection laws to challenge industrial projects along the lower Columbia River, particularly those involving fossil fuels.
DNR’s SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act) review of the property insufficiently examined how the Port’s development of a direct river-to-rail line would affect wildlife there, Riverkeeper argued in their 2017 appeal. They cited the potential for habitat loss for the great blue heron, white-tailed deer, cranes, salmon, steelhead and waterfowl as well as the loss of public access to a pheasant release and hunting site.
DNR also failed to determine whether the property had “aquatic lands,” Riverkeeper said, referring to a slough and creek running through the property.
But the court found Tuesday that the land sale was exempt from a SEPA review entirely, even though DNR performed a SEPA review on the property voluntarily. It further found that the SEPA review’s determination that the project was unlikely to have a significant adverse environmental impact did not change that exemption.
The court also struck down Riverkeeper’s concern that the sale could have a “snowballing” effect, causing further developments in the project to override environmental concerns.
“In this case the transaction is purely a land sale. There are no permitting decisions, planning decisions, etc. being addressed. It is purely changing owners of a piece of bare land. As such it seems to fall outside of the ‘snowballing’ concept,” and any further development would be subject to a full environmental impact study, the court concluded.
The port has long wanted to develop Austin Point into a bulk commodity terminal on the Columbia River, but a proposal for a grain terminal fizzled out in the 1980s under legal challenges. Development planning hit a roadblock again four years ago when the port realized that a land easement it needed for the rail access to Austin Point had expired in the late 1980s.
The port first sought to renew the easement for just 40 acres needed for the rail access, but the Department of Natural Resources said the port had to purchase all 153.3 acres connected to the Kuhnis Road property.