The Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals will decide by month’s end whether Columbia County commissioners erred when approving an application to rezone 837 acres of high-value farmland for industrial development at Port Westward industrial park.
County commissioners voted 2-1 to rezone the property in 2017, which would nearly double the size of the industrial park owned by the Port of St. Helens near Clatskanie in northwest Oregon.
Neighboring farmers, however, worry that converting zoned agricultural land to industrial land will threaten the health of their crops, including mint and blueberries. Two environmental groups, Columbia Riverkeeper and 1000 Friends of Oregon, appealed the county’s decision to LUBA in March, and the board heard arguments in the case on Thursday, Nov. 1.
Port Westward, a former World War II-era military ammunition depot, is an appealing site for potential businesses because it provides deep water access along 4,000 feet of the lower Columbia River. The industrial park is already home to three Portland General Electric natural gas power plants and the Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery.
In its rezone application, the Port of St. Helens lists five proposed uses for the expanded area: forestry and wood products, dry bulk commodities, liquid bulk commodities, natural gas and break-bulk cargo.
Opponents argue the rezone violates state planning goals intended to preserve and maintain farmland — namely Statewide Planning Goal 3. Jim Hoffman, owner of Hopville Farms, said he has been working for years to successfully grow blueberries in the area, and depends on exclusive farm use zoning to ensure clean water for his fruit.
“Converting agricultural lands into an energy industrial complex dooms the lower Columbia River and jeopardizes the livelihood and safety of the local community,” Hoffman said in a statement.
This is not the first time the port has attempted to rezone the land. Columbia County initially approved the request in 2014. Columbia Riverkeeper and Seely Family Farm, a mint farm in Clatskanie, successfully appealed to LUBA, which remanded the decision back to the county in part because the port did not explain how proposed uses would be compatible with nearby farms.
Though the port attempted to narrow its list of proposed uses to five categories in its latest application, attorneys for Columbia Riverkeeper and 1000 Friends of Oregon maintain they are still not compatible with adjacent farms.
“We believe the port has simply not demonstrated that its proposal meets the high legal threshold for a rezone of farmland for industrial uses,” said Meriel Darzen, staff attorney for 1000 Friends of Oregon.
The port argues it is justified for a Goal 3 exception because the deep water port and existing dock facilities at Port Westward constitute a unique resource for businesses looking to access foreign trade and ocean marine transport. In addition, Port Westward is a self-scouring deep water port, meaning it does not require dredging, with existing dock facilities, which the state has declared a development priority.
The port also claims there are no viable alternative sites available for the proposed uses. An analysis of alternative sites included other locations at the Port of St. Helens, as well as deep water ports in Portland, Astoria, Coos Bay and Newport. Each of the other ports have constraints on available land, rail access, nearby incompatible uses and market factors, the analysis states.
LUBA will issue a written ruling on the case by Nov. 29.