Port Westward hit another snag on Dec. 27 when the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) remanded back to local officials a second attempt to rezone 837 acres of land on the Columbia River.
In 2013, the Port of Columbia County, formerly Port of St. Helens, proposed expanding its 905-acre property at Port Westward, located near Clatskanie, to allow for industrial development. Opposing the rezone, the environmental watchdog Columbia Riverkeeper sees Port Westward as ground zero for what it calls controversial fossil fuel developments.
The LUBA decision essentially required more detailed information from the Port and Columbia County about compatibility with nearby agricultural land in order to proceed with the rezone, also finding that the County needed to more adequately analyze potential environmental impacts.
Of nine separate arguments outlined in LUBA documents, the appeals board sided with Riverkeeper on just one - the need for more specific details regarding proposals.
The Port of Columbia County will be required to disclose the specific uses intended at Port Westward, as well as the anticipated impacts on nearby farmland, water quality and the Columbia River. The site is an established deepwater port with direct access to the Columbia River.
“Today’s decision opens the door for Columbia County to protect high-yield farmland and strong salmon runs,” said Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, senior organizer for Columbia Riverkeeper.
“Industrializing rural Columbia County with dirty fossil fuel projects like fracked gas-to-methanol refineries and oil-by-rail ignores the public’s legitimate concerns about health and quality of life impacts,” she said.
A statement from Columbia Riverkeeper said although the ruling favored the County and Port on several issues, the ruling on a key issue in favor of the environmental organizations means the rezone is not valid until the County and Port address legal flaws. The County, Port, or environmental organizations have the right to appeal the decision.
A statement from the Port of Columbia County highlighted the weight of the judgment in favor of allowing the rezone to move forward. Port Executive Director Doug Hayes said the additional information requested by LUBA on the single point of concern was readily available.
“The Port is pleased with LUBA’s decision to reject all but one of the opponents’ arguments,” Hayes said. “The Commission and the Port will consider how best to move forward to bring economic development and prosperity to Columbia County and the port district.”
Hayes also noted that Port Westward was among the very few deepwater ports along the Columbia River. He said since the rezone was approved, multiple companies have shown interest in investing at Port Westward, with the potential for creating hundreds of jobs.
The Port’s statement said the 837-acre expansion area would address the need, both at the local and state level, for industrial land.
“Prior to the rezone, there was little, if any, developable acreage at Port Westward not encumbered with wetlands, conservation easements, existing rural industrial facilities, transmission lines, and long-term leases,” the Port statement said.
Hayes said the additional scrutiny was understandable given the importance of the rezone. Calling it the largest rezone in state history, he said the decision could be a precedent-setting landmark case. The deepwater nature of Port Westward plays a significant factor in the push to rezone. The Port of Columbia County requires the docking facilities be used by any tenant that moves onto the site.
Hayes said going forward, Port officials would consult with legal counsel and establish a timeline for response while gathering the necessary details to present to LUBA. The County Commission will be consulted as well. Hayes predicted the rezone would be approved upon the return to LUBA.
The decision marks the second time the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals has judged industrial development at Port Westward. In 2014, Columbia Riverkeeper also challenged a similar proposal. It was found that Columbia County’s decision violated state laws designed to protect farmland and the rezone was remanded back to local decision-makers.
Earlier this year, Columbia Riverkeeper and other environmental advocates, including 1000 Friends of Oregon, challenged Columbia County’s decision to approve the rezone.
“Converting Oregon’s best farmland and salmon habitat for fossil fuel development goes against Oregon’s clean energy goals, and it is inconsistent with the state’s land use laws, particularly where so much industrial land is already available," Meriel Darzen, staff attorney for 1000 Friends of Oregon, said in the statement from Riverkeeper.
"We hope the Port of St. Helens will permanently shelve this plan," Darzen said.