Update: The Port of Columbia County approved an amendment to an existing contract with Northwest Innovation Works in a 3-to-1 vote Wednesday, May 22. The amendment changes the location for NWIW's land option, which allows them to pay a monthly fee to retain rights to develop. The option will move from an industrial-zoned parcel to a parcel within the 837 acres the port is currently trying to rezone at Port Westward. The rezone, which would make the farmland available for industrial use, faced an additional setback last week.
Under the new agreement, NWIW will receive 25% of the total amount it has paid the port so far and will not have to make any more payments until the land is rezoned. The sole vote against the amendment was from Patrick Trapp, who said he was against returning 25% of NWIW's past payments.
NWIW initially signed a lease option with the port in 2014, meaning that the company paid the port to keep the land available while they planned a lease. At the time, a spokesperson for NWIW said construction would be completed by late 2017 or early 2018 at the earliest. In February of 2018, the port renewed the lease option, giving NWIW extra time.
Now, NWIW wants to move the lease over to an unspecified 100 acres within the 837 acres the port is trying to rezone for industrial use. If the resolution, 2019-27, passes, the port will return 25% of the money collected from NWIW so far. According to port finance director Bob Gadotti, NWIW has paid roughly $730,000 to the port, meaning the port will have to return about $182,500.
"We're as committed to Port Westward as we were the first day we showed up here. The realities require us to progress logically. As such, we don't want to see development hampered in Columbia County," NWIW president Vee Godley said at the May 8 port meeting.
The company's current option-to-lease agreement with the port is for a parcel already zoned for industrial use. Switching the lease to a parcel of land that isn't yet ready for move-in means the previous parcel will be available to other potential occupants.
"We want to be a good neighbor to everyone," Godley said.
NWIW won't have to pay anything to the port until a "favorable" decision is found in the rezone for the land, which is currently under consideration by the state Land Use Board of Appeals. The company would then pay the port $15,000 per month to reserve the land until a lease is signed. From the time of the decision, the company would have 90 days to select its parcel from the rezone area.
The option agreement allows NWIW to produce methanol, but prohibits the manufacturing of Liquid Natural Gas. The initial project "is expected to generate a minimum of 100 full-time equivalent jobs, but no less than 70 jobs," according to the amended option to lease agreement.
Though the resolution frees up land for other potential development, some see it as a further set-back in a struggle to bring jobs to the county.
"There needs to be an explanation to the local jobseekers who have been promised jobs at the methanol plant for five years," said Paulette Lichatowich, a former port commissioner who stepped down early from the position.
Dan Serres is the conservation director for Columbia Riverkeeper, which has led the fight against the port's attempts to rezone 837 acres of farmland at Port Westward for industrial use. At the port meeting on Wednesday, Serres urged the port to terminate NWIW's option.
"This is a good time to jettison this project all together, which we think is a very poor fit for Columbia County," Serres said.
The resolution comes as NWIW is facing increased criticism in Washington state. On Wednesday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee came out against a NWIW project.
"I cannot in good conscience support continued construction of a liquefied natural gas plant in Tacoma or a methanol production facility in Kalama," Inslee said at a press conference Wednesday. Last month, an OPB investigation found that while NWIW has publicly emphasized the benefits of using natural gas to produce methanol, documents show the company has quietly promoted their aim of exporting the methanol as fuel for China.
In front of port commissioners on Wednesday, Godley defended the methanol plants, saying documents used to present to potential customers "use analogies."
"We produce (methanol) in a cleaner, more economically and environmentally responsible way than anybody else in the world. But when we're talking to investors, we do present the entire market," Godley said.
Port commissioners will continue the discussion on resolution 2019-27 at their next meeting, May 22 at 8:30 a.m.
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