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Environmentalist group, farmer plan appeal of decision to state board

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - Clatskanie mint farmer Mike Seely holds up a package of mint candies from Seely Mint Farm, the company he owns that operates on land adjacent to Port of St. Helens property. The port won final approval from the Columbia County Board of County Commissioners to rezone 837 acres of land around the Port Westward energy park north of Clatskanie for industrial use. Seely has vowed to contest the decision before the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals.The Port of St. Helens' application to rezone agricultural and forestry land adjacent to its Port Westward industrial park north of Clatskanie was formally approved in part Wednesday, Jan. 29.

The Columbia County Board of County Commissioners unanimously adopted an ordinance amending the county's comprehensive plan to allow 837 acres of land owned by the port to be rezoned for industrial use, effectively expanding the Port Westward property.

The vote makes official the board's decision last November to approve the port's application in part, and with conditions, after holding a series of public hearings in Clatskanie to allow supporters and opponents of the rezoning to testify on the record.

“I think that's certainly a great step in this year-long process,” Patrick Trapp, executive director of the Port of St. Helens, said Wednesday afternoon of the board vote. “We've had an opportunity to see and address all the concerns and the issues that people had. It's one of those things that we had planned in our strategic business plan, and I'm glad we're moving forward with that.”

The port originally asked that 957 acres of land ringing Port Westward, an energy park that occupies about 2,300 acres of land, including frontage on the Columbia River, be rezoned as rural industrial. Despite public outcry over the possibility of a coal export terminal or power plant being built on the rezoned land, port officials said they did not want to impose conditions that could preclude prospective projects at Port Westward.

After reviewing public testimony and reports from county staff and the Columbia County Planning Commission, which issued a nonbinding recommendation last June that the port's application be denied, the Board of County Commissioners decided unanimously in November to allow the rezoning to go ahead. But the commissioners also decided to exclude 120 acres of riverfront property from being rezoned and prohibit the construction of a coal facility on the rezoned land, a concession to environmentalist groups and local farmers.

But the modifications were not enough to satisfy Hood River-based nonprofit organization Columbia Riverkeeper or Clatskanie mint farmer Mike Seely.

Columbia Riverkeeper and Seely plan to appeal the board's decision to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals.

“We believe that Oregon land use law protects farmland, protects salmon habitat, and the port's sprawl of industrial land into high-quality farmland violates that land use law,” said Brett VandenHeuvel, executive director of Columbia Riverkeeper, on Wednesday after the board vote.

Seely said he is concerned about the impact heavy industry could have on his mint plants, as well as shipping delays caused by increased rail traffic near his farm. His Seely Mint Farm property abuts the port property being rezoned under the ordinance, and one parcel that he leases is completely surrounded by it, he said Wednesday.

“We do feel that this decision could wipe us out,” Seely said.

Seely Mint recently announced a major contract with supermarket chain Whole Foods Market. By the end of 2014, Seely said, Whole Foods stores across the United States will carry Seely Mint products, such as peppermint oil and chocolate mint patties. He indicated Wednesday that similar contracts may soon be inked with Macy's and Bloomingdale's department stores.

Columbia County Commissioner Earl Fisher, who lives in Clatskanie, acknowledged the Whole Foods contract in comments at the end of the Board of County Commissioners' meeting Wednesday morning.

“We really appreciate [Seely's] efforts to really a develop a nice business out there, and we really appreciate what he's doing,” said Fisher.

Seely has warned that he may relocate his mint farming operation out of Columbia County if the rezone goes ahead, and he repeated it again Wednesday.

“It's out there,” Seely said of the possibility he might move elsewhere. “It has to be. And we have to protect our loyal customers and be able to supply them product year-round.”

A notice of appeal must be filed with the Land Use Board of Appeals within 21 days, a countdown that began when the final order approving the rezone was signed Wednesday. VandenHeuvel said Columbia Riverkeeper and Seely will file within 21 days, but he declined to offer a more specific timeframe.

Once the appeal has been filed, LUBA will consider its merits and ultimately render a decision. That decision can also be appealed through Oregon's state court system.

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