County approves Port Westward expansion
Chants of "shame, shame, shame!" rang from the audience Wednesday morning, Nov. 29, as Columbia County commissioners handed down a 2-1 vote to approve a rezone application for expansion of industrial land at Port Westward north of Clatskanie.
Commissioner Alex Tardif cast the opposing vote.
The vote to approve the Port of St. Helens' remanded application for a comprehensive plan amendment and rezone of 837 acres of farmland outside the current boundaries of Port Westward Industrial Park marked the second time the county approved the request from the Port.
The first came in 2014, when commissioners approved the land use request for the intended expansion of Port Westward.
Shortly afterward, the county's decision was appealed at the state level by Columbia Riverkeeper and others, and then remanded back to the county.
It took years for a revised application from the Port to make its way back to the county's land use department.
Wednesday's vote came after months of public meetings and time extensions for comments and testimony that caused the final deliberations and vote to be delayed several times.
Ultimately, Commissioners Henry Heimuller and Margaret Magruder said, despite their rich histories in farming, they felt the need to "move into the future."
"I conclude that the intent of the land use law was not to be an obstacle to planned growth, but to be a guide and to provide a process," Magruder said. "There's 12,000 acres of agricultural land right there and very little of it in the last 25 years has been used as productive agricultural land. ... Now we have to look to other things and we have to look
to the Columbia River, which is totally underutilized."
Magruder was met with audible disapproval from the audience over her assessment.
During every step of the public review process, the application was met with public scrutiny over the loss of high value farmland, as well as environmental impacts, traffic impacts from increased rail activity, and the question of whether the current dock and rail lines at Port Westward have enough capacity to support additional industrial tenants.
"Local elected officials ignored input from hundreds of people who care about farms and quality of life in Columbia County," Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, a senior organizer with Columbia Riverkeeper, a nonprofit conservation watchdog group based in Hood River, stated in a news release Wednesday morning. "The county's decision ignores local land use laws designed to protect farms, clean water, and public health."
Members of the public, as well as Columbia Riverkeeper's legal team, also questioned whether Portland General Electric, which has a long-term lease at Port Westward and retains approval rights for use of several key pieces of infrastructure there, would allow unfettered access to the dock and rail lines for new industrial operations.
"That property is immediately adjacent to the existing Port Westward site," Commissioner Heimuller said before casting his vote. "There's all the [infrastructure] there that is needed to ship goods out. There's no doubt that that's high value farmland. We have a lot of high value farmland in this county."
As commissioners delivered their remarks before voting, members of the public held up signs urging "no" votes, while some wore "farms feed us" stickers on their clothing.
Commissioner Tardif countered his fellow commissioners, who argued the Port Westward rezone was a step forward.
"I hear you say we need to look to the future and for me, I feel like we're looking to the past," Tardif said, calling fossil fuel projects relics of the past.
"For me, to rezone 1 percent of our farmland into industry is not looking to the future," Tardif added. "I see us looking at our past and trying to carry it forward."
Barring another appeal, the rezone approval could move forward as soon as county officials approve the decision in writing.
Zimmer-Stucky said Riverkeeper is "reviewing today's decision ... to determine the best path forward."