Columbia Riverkeeper and other environmental groups oppose conversion of farmland for industrial use by the port

COURTESY COLUMBIA RIVERKEEPER  - Activists moblilzed to fight a zone change that would convert farmland to industrial use in Columbia County. The fight to preserve what some say is Oregon's best farmland will continue next month in Columbia County.

After a more than four-hour public hearing in Clatskanie Wednesday evening, Aug. 2, to reconsider a request from the Port of St. Helens to rezone 837 acres of prime agricultural land for resource industrial, the Columbia County Board of Commissioners took no vote, opting to leave the record open for two weeks for additional written comments before reconvening Sept. 13 for a vote.

As more than 70 people shuffled into an auditorium at Clatskanie Middle/High School before Wednesday's meeting, they passed by a table with stickers that read, "Farms feed us," and small plastic cups offering samples of fresh-picked blueberries.

Wednesday marked the county's first public hearing on the proposed rezone since the project was appealed in 2014 by Seely Family Mint farm in Clatskanie and Columbia Riverkeeper.

The Port of St. Helens seeks a comprehensive plan amendment to expand Port Westward Industrial Park in Clatskanie. The plan amemdment requires the county to make an exception to a statewide planning goal to accommodate future industrial uses that rely on a deepwater port and dock to import and export materials.

Those materials would include forestry and wood processing, dry or liquid bulk transfer, storage or production, natural gas and derivative products, and bulk storage.

Speaking on behalf of the Port of St. Helens, Spencer Parsons of Portland legal firm Beery Elsner & Hammond meticulously detailed the port's new application, which he said emphasizes the need for more resource land to better utilize the unique deepwater port and dock that exists at Port Westward.

Parsons argued a deepwater port in a rural area is exactly the type of resource that warrants an exception to statewide planning goals.

Clatskanie city officials, the city's Chamber of Commerce president and residents like Deborah Hazen pleaded with commissioners for approval of the project, citing "a clear and pressing need for more industrial land and family-wage jobs."

Hazen and other project proponents argued the county is lagging in jobs growth and has a unique opportunity to be a major export community with an expanded tax base.

Their support was overshadowed, however, by the more than 30 people who turned out Wednesday to speak against the proposal.

Representatives of Columbia Riverkeeper, the environmental advocacy group that appealed the county's initial approval of the project in 2014, said the port's new application is still far too broad to satisfy state requirements.

Lauren Goldberg, an attorney for Columbia Riverkeeper, said the port is "talking out of both sides of its mouth." She argued the port is trying to dismiss other viable industrial sites and deepwater ports that also are actively looking for tenants as a way to justify an exception to state planning goals that aim to preserve valuable agricultural land.

Goldberg also noted that wetlands at Port Westward could likely be filled and used for industrial development.

While savvy attorneys for the port and Columbia Riverkeeper parsed words in legal language, and project proponents shared a vision of a prospective, booming economy along the Columbia, a slew of farmers testified about the businesses they're already tending to.

Jim Hoffmann owns Hopville Farms in Clatskanie. Hoffmann grows blueberries in north Columbia County, and also has a farm in the Willamette Valley. He said the soil quality in Clatskanie rivals what he sees in the Willamette Valley, which is typically billed as Oregon's best farmland.

"Our plants outproduce here by 30 percent," Hoffmann said. "We think this location could be 10 percent of Oregon's blueberry supply, if given a chance to grow."

Hoffmann said new industrial uses would contaminate his and other farms via water runoff and air pollution.

"You can't have industrial use where you're making food," Hoffmann said. "It's not safe."

Bill Eagle of St. Helens, who assisted with the preparation and development of the Columbia County Soil Survey years ago, said only 3.6 percent of the land in Columbia County is considered prime agricultural land.

"We have more urban and industrial lands in this county than we have agriculture," Eagle noted. "Our county's best agricultural land now has been replaced by rock pits and gravel mines."

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