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Appeals board finds county did not have sufficient evidence to approve 837-acre rezone.

COURTESY PHOTO: COLUMBIA COUNTY - Photos in the county staff report show agriculture uses in the proposed rezone area and surrounding lands.An appeals board has yet again sided with environmental advocacy groups and found that Columbia County did not have enough evidence to approve the rezone of 837 acres of agricultural lands into rural industrial lands.

The Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals agreed with Columbia Riverkeeper and 1000 Friends of Oregon that the county did not adequately demonstrate that the proposed industrial uses would be compatible — or would be made compatible — with existing adjacent land uses.

Attorneys with Crag Law Center represented Riverkeeper and 1000 Friends, making three arguments against the county's third approval of the rezone. LUBA sided with all three of the environmental groups' arguments.

The Port of Columbia County has sought to rezone the land outside Clatskanie and nearly double the size of the Port Westward Industrial Park for nearly a decade. Each time, LUBA has rejected the port and county government's reasoning behind rezoning the land, remanding the decision to the county in 2014, 2018 and now 2022.

Oregon land use planning goals require the preservation of agricultural lands, with exceptions only granted when the proposed rezones meet high standards.

"Columbia County commissioners erred badly in rezoning Port Westward. The land they seek to industrialize has been farmed for generations, providing unique and deep soils that sustain the production of food and other crops that go far beyond this community, from u-pick blueberries to high-quality mint and cattle," Clatskanie mint farmer Mike Seely said in a press release from Riverkeeper. "LUBA's decision affirms that Oregon land use laws protect farmland, and that will improve our local economy."

Columbia Riverkeeper conservation director Dan Serres said that the Monday, May 9, decision was "a big win for those guys" like Seely and other farmers "who really are staring at a major impact on their livelihoods."

The county approved the rezone for a third time last summer but did not submit arguments defending its decision during the latest appeal. The port did mount a defense.

The port has spent roughly half a million dollars on the lengthy rezone process since 2013.

In its appeal, Riverkeeper argued that the county did not evaluate the impacts on specific agricultural practices in the area.

"An increase in dust from the transportation of grain could have immensely more impact on surrounding agricultural practices," Crag Law Center attorney Teryn Yazdani said in oral arguments. "Grain dust that flows onto adjacent crops, such as the organic or non-GMO products, could result in the crops being contaminated beyond repair. The surrounding berries and mint farms can't wash their products that have dust onto them because it would make the crop unusable, mushy and ruined."

The county rejected the idea that it should evaluate the risks specific to a type of farming "because seasonal crop rotations and typical changes in crop processing and/or management does not change the agricultural use of the land."

LUBA disagreed.

The compatibility report prepared by the port stated that most of the potential "adverse impacts" of the proposed land uses were already possible under existing agricultural uses. But the compatibility report, and the county's findings, did not assess the difference in scale.

"As petitioners argue, the potential adverse impacts of a farm truck leaking oil are very different from the potential adverse impacts of a leaking million-gallon oil storage tank," LUBA Chair H.M. Zamudio wrote in the remand decision.

The port and county also deferred many issues to later land-use decisions and regulatory agencies that would oversee the proposed uses. LUBA took issue with that, too.

Oregon land use statute requires that the county only approve the rezone if it finds that "the proposed uses are compatible with other adjacent uses." Oregon administrative rules also require that the county finds that the proposed uses would be "compatible with surrounding natural resources and resource management or production practices."

The county rejected Riverkeeper's claim that the evaluation of natural resources should address "surrounding" uses rather than only directly adjacent uses. But LUBA again sided with Riverkeeper, determining that the county "misconstrued the applicable law."


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