On split vote, Port of St. Helens Commission opts not to let go of St. Helens site

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Steven Fuhr (left) of Toucan Farms, corresponds with Port of St. Helens staff and Commissioner Chris Iverson (right) during a Port of St. Helens meeting Feb. 14. Two weeks later, commissioners opted not to sell property to Toucan Farms.The prospect of a cannabis company buying land from the Port of St. Helens for a new processing and wholesaling site died Wednesday, Feb. 28.

Port commissioners voted 3-2, with Commissioners Mike Avent, Paulette Lichatowich and Chris Iverson in the majority, not to approve a property sale to Washington-based Toucan Farms.

Toucan Farms had been working with the Port of St. Helens to find property suitable for developing two new buildings to facilitate cannabis processing. The company initially wanted to lease a site, but commissioners voiced hesitation and disapproval over having an active business contract with a marijuana company due to federal law that still classifies marijuana as illegal.

A site on Railroad Avenue was first identified, but later deemed too expensive and cumbersome to develop due to wetlands issues and the high cost of incorporating utilities at the site. Port staff instead suggested the company consider a site on Old Portland Road, surrounded by other Port properties.

Steven Fuhr, managing partner of Toucan Farms, told commissioners earlier that month that his company hoped to find a site and eventually hire 10 to 15 employees, adding to the company's portfolio of cannabis products.

While Commissioner Robert Keyser was one of the most vocal opponents of leasing to Toucan Farms, he was one of only two votes to approve the property sale to the company. Commissioner Larry Ericksen also supported the property sale, noting the land is currently unused.

"This property has been sitting vacant for five years and has done absolutely nothing for the community, given nothing to the tax base," Ericksen noted. He and Lichatowich previously toured the site of a Toucan operation at the Port of Shelton in Washington and later commended the company and its site there.

Ericksen said he'd like to see the property sold at a small profit to the Port so it could start generating tax revenue and jobs. The Port purchased the site in 2014, primarily as a strategic move because it had a house on site and the agency worried future residential occupation could hinder industrial operations on surrounding sites, explained Paula Miranda, the Port's deputy executive director. The house is now vacant. The sale would net the Port an estimated $20,000 in profit.

Commissioner Chris Iverson, who led the charge against selling the site, said he wasn't convinced the Port was making the right decision by giving up a piece of property centrally positioned near several other Port properties.

"It's kind of in the middle of that larger piece of property," Iverson noted. "We're getting very little money out of it. I have issues with selling that piece for those reasons."

Toucan Farms representatives were not present for Wednesday's vote and a rep for the company could not immediately be reached for comment.

"I guess today we'll decide not to sell the property," Avent noted, before moving on to other matters.

Lichatowich suggested relocating the vacant house on the site or offering it to Habitat for Humanity.

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