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County commissioners say inadequate staffing in planning department means there's no time to include planning commission in review

COURTESY PHOTO: NEXT RENEWABLE FUELS - A rendering from NEXT's consultants, Mackenzie, shows the proposed biofuel production facility on the right.Columbia County commissioners are taking direct control of the land use permitting process for a proposed biofuel production facility near Clatskanie.

Typically, the land-use application by NEXT Renewable Fuels would go to the seven-member appointed planning commission first, then come to the three county commissioners, county attorney Robin McIntyre said.

But county officials say there isn't enough time to go through the usual process.

"Because of the staffing shortages, we got a late start on this application," McIntyre said.

State statute requires that final action on permits or land use decisions be taken within 150 days after the application is deemed complete.

NEXT Renewable Fuels has made two applications to the county. They were submitted in January but revised in mid-July 2021. The 150-day clock started ticking on July 15, putting the deadline on Dec. 12.

"If we go through the planning commission process and wait for it to be appealed, et cetera … they're going to lose two more months right there, easily," Robert Wheeldon, a temporary planning director, told county commissioners at a recent work session.

The Board of Commissioners voted Oct. 20 to take jurisdiction of the permit application review, effectively skipping over the planning commission.

NEXT's plans for the project, which the company says represents an investment of more than $1.5 billion, have proven controversial since they were announced more than three years ago. Vocal opposition from environmental groups and other opponents has increased as the company has submitted various local, state and federal permit applications.

Commissioner Henry Heimuller voted in favor of taking jurisdiction from the planning commission, but he said he had reservations about the move.

"I'm concerned about the fact that this takes one more step of public access to the process out of the process. The planning commission process, yes, adds time. But it's there for a reason and a purpose, and that's to allow folks more access," Heimuller said.

But Heimuller acknowledged the time crunch Columbia County is facing in the permitting process.

"I'm sorry to say that we, the county, haven't had enough resources to do this in a timely manner," he said.

Heimuller said the county will need to "go above and beyond the call of duty" to notify residents about the now-more-limited opportunities to provide input into the process.

The full procedure would typically allow multiple opportunities for written and verbal comments from neighbors of the proposed site.

"We're not doing this in order to skip a process, but because our staffing situation is a little tight," Commissioner Margaret Magruder said.

Two of the positions, representing roughly one-third of the department, are currently open.

County commissioners approved a separation agreement with the most recent director of Columbia County Land Development Services, Karen Schminke, back in July 2021. Schminke held the role for roughly two and a half years.

The department director position split time 70% on the planning side and 30% on the building side.

The planning manager, Matt Laird, resigned later that summer. Wheeldon has filled in as a temporary employee, but a job opening for the permanent position has not been filled yet.

Mark Pacheco, the county's public information officer, said that staffing within Land Development Services — which also includes a building division — "has been affected by COVID leaves, FMLA-protected leaves, and military leaves" since the beginning of the year.

"Staffing difficulties and a significant influx of forest-dwelling applications have combined to present a unique set of challenges to the Land Development Services department in 2021," Pacheco wrote.

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