A riverfront advisory committee wants to allow future commercial uses at the site, while the mill's owner wants to leave it only for industrial use with no public access

GRAPHIC FILE PHOTO - A riverfront advisory committee wants to allow future commercial uses at the site, while the mill's owner wants to leave it only for
industrial use with no public access

A Newberg citizens committee has advised city staff to move forward with changes to the zoning of WestRock land within the city limits to allow other uses, despite WestRock's preference to leave the site alone.

The Riverfront Master Plan Citizens Advisory Committee met Tuesday night and were presented with two alternatives to the original 2002 plan.

The two alternatives were labeled D and E, with D reflecting the wishes of WestRock – owners of the now-defunct mill site – to leave the entirety of the site zoned heavy industrial with little or no public access on the property. Additionally, there would be an open space buffer on the east side of South River Street to separate the industrial area.

City Senior Planner Cheryl Caines said alternative D is similar to the zoning currently in the riverfront district.

"WestRock has said they want to remain industrial," Caines said.

And while WestRock told the city it doesn't want to have street or trail connectivity on the site, they have expressed a willingness to allow trails along the river.

According to the committee's packet for alternative D, "Unrelated to changes at the mill site, residential land south of the bypass in the western portion of the study area is shown as High Density Residential (R-3) due to expressed interest of landowners/developers for a zone change in this site."

Community Development Director Doug Rux said WestRock doesn't want to increase connectivity because of safety concerns.

Alterative E, which the committee said was their preferred alternative, is a hybrid of earlier alternatives. It would retain most of the mill site as industrial, but adds a "Mixed Employment" designation to allow some of the property to be used for some commercial or employment purposes.

Rux said this alternative reflected broader community input the city has received, and it doesn't preclude business opportunities in the future.

When asked what the impact of going with alternative E might have on the city's relationship with WestRock, Rux said he would have to go back to them and explain why the city was moving in this particular direction.

He said this still allows the company to use their property as it is, but also creates a range of possibilities ranging from WestRock reopening the mill to them eventually selling the property.

Rux – along with City Manager Joe Hannan, Public Works Director Jay Harris and Mayor Rick Rogers – recently met with WestRock officials and toured the site to discuss the Riverfront Master Plan. Those talks centered around the city's water treatment plant, which is on the mill site, as well as discussing the master plan in general to get WestRock's opinion.

City officials called the meeting primarily to share information. No decisions on the future of the mill were made.

The goal of the riverfront plan is to look at what mix of uses, both residential and business, should be in the riverfront area; plan a walking, biking and automotive network to increase connectivity within the area and the city; and protect open space. The city began updating the plan in 2017.

The mill site has been a source of contention since closing in January 2016 after Atlanta-based WestRock purchased it.

The company intended to sell the mill and inked an $8.25 million contract on the condition the paper making machinery inside was destroyed.

WestRock officials said earlier this summer they would be open to selling the mill to another mill operator rather than demolishing the equipment. However, two potential buyers were reportedly turned away. There had been suspicious WestRock was simply biding its time while its bid to purchase Keystone Paper and Packing Co. was reviewed.

The AWPPW submitted a complaint this spring to the antitrust division of the U.S. Department of Justice, arguing that WestRock's then-pending sale of the Newberg mill to a scrapper indicated it wanted to reduce competition.

This ultimately led Sen. Ron Wyden to write a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission about the potential illegal action. WestRock also allegedly turned down a $15 million offer from a New York businessman who wanted to reopen the mill and use recycled paper to make pulp and paper for export.

Wyden called on the DOJ and the FTC to increase oversight of mergers and acquisitions in the paper industry, and in particular to investigate "reports that WestRock Co. … included as a condition of sale of the paper mill a requirement that the mill equipment be destroyed by any purchaser," characterizing such a requirement as "highly uncompetitive."

Additionally, three of the state's highest ranking elected officials – Democrats Gov. Kate Brown and U.S. Reps. Suzanne Bonamici and Earl Blumenauer – wrote a letter to WestRock CEO Steven Voorhees, expressing their concerns about the mill.

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