High court declines to hear port rezoning appeal
The Oregon Supreme Court has declined to review the Port of Columbia County's proposed rezone of 837 acres at Port Westward — a step forward for the port's development goals and a setback for opponents of the farmland rezone initiative.
The port will now continue to revise its rezone application to submit to the Columbia County board of commissioners in hopes of receiving approval to convert the farmland to industrial use. The county has approved the port's prior rezone applications.
"The next progression of events is going to be an answer to the last remanded question," the port's executive director, Doug Hayes, said Tuesday, Nov. 19.
With the petition brought by environmental advocate Columbia Riverkeeper denied, the port has one remaining question to resolve before it can receive rezone approval.
"This effectively brings the sole question of compatibility front and center and provides the port an opportunity to show that the balance between well-paying and responsible industry and historical agricultural opportunities can exist together as good neighbors," Hayes stated in a press release Friday, Nov. 15.
"It's nice to have a lot of those questions finally resolved so we can start answering the last one," Hayes added.
"The ball is in the port's court," Dan Serres, Columbia Riverkeeper's conservation director, said Monday, Nov. 18. "We're going to continue to advocate for the farmland and the salmon habitat that are present there."
The port's application will need to demonstrate that five proposed uses are compatible with neighboring lands. The proposed uses include producing, transporting, and storing wood products, dry and liquid bulk commodities, and natural gas and derivative products.
The port first applied for a rezone in 2013. The Columbia County board of commissioners approved the rezone, but the decision was soon appealed to the Land Use Board of Appeals. LUBA found the county's decision was inadequate and remanded it to the county. The port then modified the application before a second county review, arguing the rezone warranted an exception to the state planning goal of preserving agricultural lands.
The county approved the modified rezone application, but the decision was again appealed to LUBA. LUBA determined the new application addressed all but one of the issues the court had found with the first application.
In its appeal to LUBA, Columbia Riverkeeper argued the rezone application failed to demonstrate the proposed uses were dependent on the deep-water port, that there were no other sites that could accommodate the proposed uses without requiring an exception to state planning goals, or that the proposed uses were compatible with neighboring land uses.
LUBA rejected Columbia Riverkeeper's first two arguments but agreed the county had erred in concluding the proposed land uses were compatible with surrounding land use.
The county had concluded that the proposed uses would not have adversely affected adjacent land because there was no evidence to show the impacts would be different than those from past industrial uses. LUBA determined the county's decision was inadequate because it was based on a lack of evidence, rather than evidence that showed no change in impact.
Riverkeeper appealed LUBA's decision on the first two arguments to the Oregon Court of Appeals. The port then cross-appealed on the third argument.
In May, the Court of Appeals affirmed LUBA's decision. Then, in July, Riverkeeper petitioned the Oregon Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeals' decision. On Friday, Nov. 15, the Supreme Court denied Riverkeeper's petition for review.
The port commission approved up to $70,000 in additional funding for the legal battle in June, before Riverkeeper had filed a petition with the state Supreme Court. At the time, port commissioners voiced concerns about the potential legal cost if Riverkeeper continued to appeal.
Hayes estimated at the time that the port had already spent $280,000 on the rezone process. This week, Hayes said the port was still far from reaching the $70,000 limit for additional spending.
Moving pieces at Port Westward
Northwest Innovation Works has had a lease option agreement with the Port of Columbia County for half a decade, allowing the company to reserve a plot of land for a future methanol production facility. Methanol produced at the proposed plant, which NWIW asserts would employ up to 200 full-time managers and workers once operational, would be exported to China.
In May, the port commission allowed NWIW to change its lease option from an industrial-zoned parcel to a parcel in the rezone area.
NWIW does not currently have to pay the port anything to retain the lease option. If the rezone is approved, NWIW will have to pay $15,000 per month until the company takes possession of the land with a lease, which would cost considerably more.
The lease option amendment was seen by some as a sign that NWIW's proposed methanol production facility is less likely to come to fruition, though NWIW Chief Development Officer Vee Godley said in May that the company was "as committed to Port Westward as we were the first day we showed up here."
The land NWIW previously held in the lease option agreement was quickly acquired by NEXT Renewable Fuels, which plans to build a biofuel production facility.
NWIW has faced growing opposition across the river in Kalama, Washington, where the company has proposed a $2 billion operation to produce and transport methanol. The Associated Press reported on Nov. 12 that Columbia Riverkeeper and other groups had filed a lawsuit to invalidate permits issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for the project. Earlier this year, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee revoked his earlier support for the NWIW project.
Kent Caputo, NWIW's general counsel, said in a statement that the work by federal regulatory agencies "was comprehensive and exhaustive."
"We have no concerns with the sufficiency of the oversight undertaken. But in addition to what was a rigorous permitting process, it's important to acknowledge that NWIW's proposal represents the single largest opportunity in Washington State to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a recently released comprehensive third-party analysis. NWIW is also the first company to voluntarily invest in Zero Liquid Discharge technology, which will eliminate all water discharge from our facility into the Columbia River," Caputo wrote.
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