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Port Westward expansion dealt setback

Planning Commission recommends county commissioners deny rezoning request


Opponents of a Port of St. Helens proposal to expand the Port Westward Industrial Park near Clatskanie were buoyed Monday evening as the Columbia County Planning Commission, in a 5-1 decision, voted to recommend the application be denied.

Under the port’s proposal, some 957 acres would be rezoned for industrial use, roughly doubling the size of the industrial park. The port already owns much of that property, but it is currently zoned for agricultural and forestry uses only.

Testimony was overwhelmingly against the proposal at public hearings this spring, with local farmers joining environmentalists to criticize the idea of industrial development on the land.

Clatskanie mint farmer Mike Seely cautiously hailed the commission’s recommendation as a “small step in the right direction.”

“It was a very important decision that we felt needed to be made,” Seely said.

Seely said that if Port Westward’s expansion is ultimately approved by the Board of County Commissioners, he intends to move his business elsewhere.

“We’re growing rapidly,” said Seely. “We expect to have significantly more employees by this fall. And if they’d went ahead with this, we would have been seeking an exit strategy.”

Patrick Trapp, executive director of the Port of St. Helens, said the port does not have any particular use in mind for the land it is seeking to have rezoned.

“We’ve said that from the beginning,” said Trapp. “This was not based on a specific project. The property was not bought for a particular project.”

Of potential land uses that Seely said “would have destroyed” his nearby farming operation, such as a coal plant, Trapp said, “Does it rule it out? No. We’ve not asked for any exception, nor are we looking to actually rule it out. But there is no current plan, and again, the only company that was dependent upon rail has opted out. So there is no coal company to move in.”

Houston-based energy company Kinder Morgan had been eyeing Port Westward as the prospective site of a coal terminal, but it announced last month that it was dropping those plans.

Even without a coal facility moving in, Seely said, other industrial development, like a refinery, could harm his business.

“As a growing local business, I need to know, have a clear direction, so that we can move forward,” said Seely. “And when you don’t know what kind of business you’re going to have next door, the risk is too high.”

The Board of County Commissioners will consider the rezoning application and decide whether to approve or deny it.

“Generally speaking, the Planning Commission’s right on the button, and the board follows — holds their own public hearing and decides pretty much the same thing,” said Glen Higgins, the county’s chief planner. “I’m not sure if they’ll go that way this time, because the Planning Commission listens to the citizens a whole lot, and that’s their focus, where the Board of County Commissioners, they listen to the citizens, but they’ve got overriding responsibilities to the county as a whole to have opportunities for jobs.”

For Higgins’ part, he added, “I did my plug for approval.”

Commissioners declined to offer their thoughts on the matter Wednesday on advice of county counsel.

Trapp said he expects commissioners will take everything under consideration in making their decision.

“I believe the county commissioners will review all of the record to include staff’s recommendation, as well as the Planning Commission’s recommendation,” Trapp said. “And I would never presume to anticipate what their decision is. They’re going to have to weigh all of that testimony, and the application, and the responses, and any new information that comes up, and they’ll have to go through that process.”