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Commissioners Nancy Ward and Chip Bubl vote against additional $45,000 in legal costs to continue Port Westward rezone battle.

PMG PHOTO: ANNA DEL SAVIO - Commissioner Brian Fawcett voted in favor of continuing to fund the legal work to rezone 837 acres at Port Westward.Port of Columbia County commissioners approved continued spending on the legal battle to rezone 837 acres at Port Westward.

A resolution to spend up to $45,000 more on legal services from Beery, Elsner & Hammond LLP was approved by three of five commissioners.

The port has already spent close to half a million dollars on the lengthy rezone process, which started in 2013 and has involved multiple approvals and appeals in the years since.

Columbia County commissioners approved the rezone from agricultural to rural industrial land earlier this year, and the environmental nonprofits Columbia Riverkeeper and 1000 Friends of Oregon appealed soon after.

"So far, this has not been a good business decision," Port Commissioner Nancy Ward said at a Nov. 10 meeting. "We're assuming that it will eventually become a good business decision, but that's a big 'if.'"

Ward suggested that the lack of industrial leases or potential industrial tenants indicated that there wasn't a high demand for the property even if rezoned, but other commissioners disagreed.

"There is not a company in the world that's going to come here and wait seven, eight years for a piece of property to get developed," Commissioner Chris Iverson said.

"We've been in this fight for seven or eight years, I think to back out now would be crazy. We have nine issues that were brought up against us, and everything got dismissed except one.

"I think we should move forward with it and spend the money. I'm in it for a long haul, to go the distance — because the other side's going to do the same thing."

Commissioner Brian Fawcett, who works as the Clatskanie People's Utility District's economic development manager and was elected to the port board in May, acknowledged that the port doesn't have a firm commitment from any future occupants, but he said he has "fielded calls, both in my day job, and as a commissioner, about some projects out there that are really exciting and good for the environment."

Fawcett remarked, "I wouldn't be excited about some of the projects that have been proposed a while ago. But when we're talking about stuff that is going to help us transition away from fossil fuels, and that sort of thing, I think that's a huge win."

Commissioner Robert Keyser said the amount of money the port has invested in the rezone will be worthwhile, based on the prices of nearby industrial lands.

Earlier this year, NEXT Renewable Fuels paid $3.7 million for 25 acres of rural industrial land next to the land it is leasing from the port. Selling even just 4 acres at that price would cover the cost of the rezone. 

Keyser said he's always envisioned the site looking similar to Portland General Electric's property in the area, with much of the land filled with trees and wildlife.

"I see the same for that site — 50 or 100, 150 prime acres developed and the rest of it wetlands," Keyser said. "I would not vote to see us pave 800 acres out there. That's never been the vision."

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