CLATSKANIE, Ore. — Columbia County commissioners have approved rezoning 837 acres of high-value farmland for industrial use despite concerns over its potential impact on neighboring farms and salmon habitat.
It is the third time since 2014 commissioners have approved the rezone. The decision was previously remanded twice by the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals.
At least one environmental group is already pledging to again appeal to LUBA, which could take months to review the case.
The property in question was purchased by the Port of Columbia County in 2010. It is adjacent to the Port Westward Industrial Park along the Columbia River.
Officials are seeking to rezone the land to attract new tenants that can utilize the port’s deepwater dock, which provides 4,000 feet of waterfront access for large cargo ships. The dock is also self-scouring, meaning it never has to be dredged.
Opponents fear whether new fossil fuel developments may pollute the air and water, harming endangered salmon and contaminating farms within a vulnerable, low-lying area.
Jim Hoffmann, who farms 175 acres of organic blueberries roughly 2 miles downstream of Port Westward, condemned the commission’s vote on July 14 as “a travesty.”
“The port and the county are turning back the clock on Oregon’s land use progress with plans to pave over wetlands on the floodplains of the Lower Columbia River,” Hoffmann said, adding the port’s plans will put local crops like berries, spearmint and peppermint at risk.
Dan Serres, conservation director at Columbia Riverkeeper, echoed Hoffmann’s comments and said the group plans to appeal.
“We think the county commission and the port have made a big mistake,” Serres said.
Scott Jensen, a planner at the port, said the rezone application was submitted with no specific project in mind.
“We really have not been talking to people about specific projects, because we want to make sure we have the land first,” Jensen said. “We’re doing this work so that private businesses don’t have to go through and do this type of work on top of their regular development timeline.”
However, Northwest Innovation Works, the company behind a rejected methanol refinery in Kalama, Wash., does have a lease option that was approved by the port in 2019 to build a facility within part of the rezoned land at Port Westward, which has raised worries about the site becoming a hub for fossil fuels.
Part of the rezone was also set aside for two new agricultural leases, with Seely Mint leasing 211 acres and and Columbia River Ranch leasing 243 acres for cattle grazing.
Port Westward is already home to three gas power plants operated by Portland General Electric, and a loading facility operated by the Massachusetts-based Global Partners Inc. to ship ethanol and biodiesel across the Pacific Ocean.
Jensen said the port expected there would be an appeal, and is prepared to return to LUBA.
Farmland in Oregon is broadly protected under state land use planning laws — specifically Goal 3, which requires counties to identify land for “exclusive farm use.” Rezoning farmland requires what is known as a Goal 3 exception.
The port’s first stab at rezoning was approved in 2014. Columbia Riverkeeper and Mike Seely, a local mint farmer, appealed that decision, which was remanded by LUBA.
The port re-submitted its application in 2017, this time identifying five potential uses for the land. They include forestry and wood products; dry bulk commodities; liquid bulk commodities; natural gas; and break bulk cargo.
Again, Columbia County approved the request, and again it was remanded by LUBA on appeal from Columbia Riverkeeper and 1,000 Friends of Oregon.
Though LUBA agreed the five proposed uses do depend significantly on Port Westward’s dock, and no alternative sites could reasonably accommodate them, the port did not do enough to show compatibility with surrounding farms and habitat.
The question of compatibility remains at the heart of the dispute.
“The scale of this is really big, and resource impacts are significant,” Serres said. “It will be interesting to see how LUBA treats this for a third time.”