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County commissioners gave tentative approval to the Port of Columbia County's application to rezone 837 acres

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Columbia County Commissioner Henry Heimuller reviews meeting materials at the board of commissioners' July 14 meeting.The Columbia County Board of Commissioners gave tentative approval Wednesday, July 14, to the Port of Columbia County's request to rezone 837 acres at Port Westward from agricultural to industrial land.

The port, county and environmental groups have gone back and forth with legal appeals and arguments since 2013.

If finalized, the rezone would nearly double the side of the Port Westward Industrial Park.

The final sticking point on the port's rezone application was whether the proposed land uses would be compatible, or could be made compatible, with existing neighboring land uses.

The port submitted a compatibility report in July 2020. County land use staff completed a staff report and recommended that the rezone be approved.

In the public comment period, Columbia County received more than 1,600 pages of comments.

The main arguments in favor of the rezone were about creating family-wage jobs in a county where the timber and agricultural industries have dwindled.

The arguments against were primarily about the potential environmental consequences of large industry.

Representatives of the Oregon Department of Agriculture and the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development both argued against the port's proposal, both writing that the port's application did not adequately address the specific agricultural practices present on adjacent lands.

Columbia County Commissioner Casey Garrett said that Oregon is already one of the strictest states when it comes to environmental requirements.

"The federal and local requirements that someone will have to jump through for future development is a stringent process," Garrett said. "The amount of time that it takes to get approval to build anything is one heck of a process. So, I feel pretty darn confident that future development activities out there will have to go through more of a process than I would maybe prefer."

Future projects on the land will have to receive applicable permits from various agencies like the Department of Environmental Quality and Army Corps of Engineers.

Garrett said the staff report clearly pointed out that "the numerous mitigation efforts that will be required and state and federal local requirements will ensure compatibility for future development."

"As someone who's been involved in agriculture, my entire life, I often say that after land use rules came to Oregon, that one of the hardest things to do on PA-80 (Primary Agriculture zoned) land was to make a living," County Chair Margaret Magruder said before voting to tentatively approve the rezone at the county commissioners' July 14 meeting.

"It is challenging to continue to make a living with agriculture — although I wish and I hope that we find other crops that can be of value," remarked Magruder, who lives in Clatskanie not far from the Port Westward site. "But I am looking forward to agriculture and industry being able to work together. … And I think that this will improve the economy in the lower Columbia."

The two environmental groups who have led the opposition to the rezone condemned the county's decision Wednesday.

"Removing zoning protections for over 800 acres of primarily high-value farmland is no way to thank farmers for their ongoing contributions to our state or to help new farmers gain access to farmland," Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, working lands engagement manager at 1000 Friends of Oregon, said in a press release.

Dan Serres, conservation director for Columbia Riverkeeper, said the group plans to appeal the decision to the Land Use Board of Appeals, as they have done in the past.

"This decision is a travesty," Jim Hoffmann, a blueberry farmer at Hopville Farms in Clatskanie, stated in the press release. "The port and the county are turning back the clock on Oregon's land use progress with plans to pave over wetlands on the floodplains of the Lower Columbia River. The port's plans will put at serious risk high-value blueberry farms and other high-value crops like peppermint and spearmint."

Port Westward already hosts some energy and fuel companies, including Global Partners LP, which operates the Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery oil transloading operation; the planned NEXT Renewable Fuels bio-fuel production facility, which has yet to start construction; and Portland General Electric, which operates gas-fired power plants.

The rezone would allow five categories of industrial uses, including processing forestry products, bulk commodities, and natural gas and derivative products. Land that is zoned RIPD (Resource Industrial Planned Development) can still be used for agricultural purposes.

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