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Enviros force review of Port Westward expansion onto farmland

Mike Seely.A state appeals board handed down a decision Wednesday, Aug. 27, criticizing several of the Columbia County Board of Commissioners’ stated reasons for approving the expansion of the Port Westward industrial park near Clatskanie and ordering the county to reevaluate the zone change.

The Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals remanded the rezoning decision in its unanimous judgment. The board sided with the appellants, environmentalist group Columbia Riverkeeper and local farmer Mike Seely, on several arguments they made that the county erred in its decision.

After hearing public testimony last fall, the Board of County Commissioners formally approved the conversion of 837 acres of agricultural and forestry land to be used for heavy industry this January. Seely and Columbia Riverkeeper, which is based in Hood River, promptly filed an appeal with LUBA.

The LUBA ruling places the matter back into the hands of the county commissioners. Under the terms of the ruling, they will need to issue a revised order on the rezoning.

In the 3-0 opinion written by Tod A. Bassham, LUBA found that the county and Port of St. Helens, which owns the land in question, have been overly vague in explaining for what industrial uses the zone change is necessary.

Bassham wrote that “the Port’s fundamental approach in this proceeding to request a reasons exception to authorize a very broad and open-ended range of unspecified industrial uses is highly problematic,” even if it is not expressly prohibited by state rules.

In his opinion, Bassham suggested it would be easier for the county to justify the rezoning if the port were to narrow down “the broad universe of industrial uses” it wants to allow on the rezoned land.

The board also questioned the need for the rezoning, noting that “much of the adjoining 905-acre Port Westward site is vacant” and even wetlands within that area could conceivably be filled in and built upon.

“We conclude that the county has not demonstrated that the approximately 445 acres of vacant lands within the Port Westward site can be rejected under the reasonable accommodate standard, based on the mere presence of wetlands,” Bassham wrote.

The board agreed with appellants that the county was too quick to dismiss alternative sites where heavy industry could be developed elsewhere in Columbia County. It declined, however, to side with Seely and Columbia Riverkeeper on all of their arguments, including one related to rail impacts.

Columbia Riverkeeper’s Executive Director Brett VandenHeuvel expressed satisfaction with the board’s decision.

“Farmland in Oregon is really highly protected,” VandenHeuvel remarked. “You can’t change agricultural zoning without definite reasons to do it.”

VandenHeuvel said he sees the zone change as a tradeoff.

“It’s a real question of whether to sacrifice this quality of life and this farmland for dirty coal and oil,” he said, adding, “We’re very concerned about turning 800 acres of farmland into fossil fuel infrastructure.”

LUBA decisions can be appealed to the Oregon Court of Appeals.

Patrick Trapp, executive director of the Port of St. Helens, said the next step is not yet clear.

“The court remanded it, which means they’re sending it back ... with a number of things to fix, clarify, or take a look at,” Trapp said. “We don’t know to what extent it’d be required yet, but in the days to come I’m sure our land use attorney will work with the port, and we’ll both digest it and determine the next steps.”

Todd Dugdale, director of Columbia County Land Development Services, said it may be possible for the county’s rezoning order to be “modified in response to the LUBA decision” without being fundamentally altered. He also appeared to leave the door open to another public process.

“LUBA found there was insufficient findings of support to sustain our conclusions,” Dugdale said. “We have to supplement the record of the proceeding to support the conclusions that we drew.”

Through a county clerk, assistant county counsel Robin McIntyre declined to comment for this story.

County Commissioner Tony Hyde, who chairs the Board of Commissioners, did not return a call requesting comment before press time.