Commissioners grapple over return on investment for Port Westward expansion efforts

A $15,000 expenditure approved by Port of St. Helens commissioners Wednesday, May 10, underscored division among commissioners over one of the Port's most ambitious projects to date.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Port of St. Helens Commissioners Mike Avent (left) and Larry Ericksen grapple with spending additional money for attorney's fees to rezone property in Clatskanie. Commissioners ultimately approved the $15,000 expenditure. Commissioners voted 4-1 Wednesday, with Commissioner Paulette Lichatowich voting in opposition by phone, to approve up to $15,000 in additional land use attorney fees associated with the rezone of agricultural land near Port Westward in Clatskanie.

The $15,000 expenditure comes after multiple cost increases from the original estimate of about $25,000 given to the Port by Beery Elsner & Associates, who was hired to help guide the Port through the remand process.

After hiring attorneys to help the Port address a remand from the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals, the Port finally submitted a revised

application to Columbia County last month. The rev-

ised comprehensive plan amendment and corresponding zone change would allow nearly 840 acres of primary agriculture to be used for resource industrial purposes in Clatskanie.

While some commissioners question the need expand Port Westward via a rezone of agriculture land, others say the Port's future ability to create jobs is stifled without the expansion.

The massive rezone was initiated in 2013 but faced an appeal that caused LUBA to remand the application to the Port, seeking clarification on the types of uses that would occur at the expanded Port Westward site and why the zone change was needed, despite several other acres of land already zoned for industrial use in the area.

Commissioners begrudgingly approved the additional funds Wednesday, but not without circling back on some of the fundamental issues.

Port staff and a majority of the commissioners say the agency needs additional industrial land to accommodate new businesses.

"We had a lot of inquires and quite frankly, at this time, all of the properties zoned at Port Westward for industrial have been taken," Paula Miranda, the interim executive director of the Port, said Wednesday. "There are a lot of people that have demonstrated interest, but we can't tell somebody we have land available when we don't."

Commissioner Larry Ericksen said he would approve

the expenditure to see that

the project moves forward, but bemoaned the amount of money the Port has thrown at

the rezone, saying the costs have far exceeded initial estimates.

"I believe it's gonna pass the county," Ericksen said. "I've talked to a couple commissioners and they're very much for it ... I just wish that this pro-

cess would've been fleshed

out a little better. You were told it was $25,000, now we're being told it's gonna be $100,000."

Avent countered emphatically, saying the Port is too deeply invested in the effort to back out.

"We're into this thing a lot of money," Avent said. "If we didn't want to fight this battle, we should've got out years ago ... It's not our fault that everybody and their brother wants to fight this issue all the way through."

Avent, along with Commissioner Chris Iverson, feel the rezone project is key in the Port's mission to create more jobs and boost the county's tax base.

"If we spend $5 million, that's worth it to me, if the return is $64 million," Avent said.

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