A dispute between farmers and county commissioners in Oregon’s Columbia County over the rezoning of 837 acres of high-value farmland adjacent to the Port Westward Industrial Park presents land use officials a case of conflicting priorities.
It is a complicated case, but we side with farmers and conservationists who are concerned that further development won’t be compatible with local agriculture, fish and wildlife.
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. The land was zoned as “exclusive farm use,” or EFU, a designation intended to protect and preserve Oregon’s agriculture.
Port and county officials have made repeated attempts 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. Earlier this month the commissioners approved rezoning the land.
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 the heart of the issue is a port with an undeniably attractive location for a variety of industries. Because of its location on the Columbia River, the port is self-scouring, meaning it never has to be dredged.
Portland General Electric already operates three gas-fired power plants at Port Westward. Global Partners Inc., a Massachusetts-based energy company, also manages a transloading facility to ship ethanol and biodiesel across the Pacific Ocean.
Further development at the port could provide hundreds of jobs to the area.
Port officials say they have no particular potential industrial customer in mind, and are first trying to get the land rezoned before seeking out potential tenants.
However, Northwest Innovation Works, the company behind a rejected methanol refinery in Kalama, Wash., has 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.
Opponents fear new fossil fuel developments may pollute the air and water, harming endangered salmon and contaminating farms within a vulnerable, low-lying area.
Farmers in the area depend on surface water for irrigation, and many worry a spill at the site would contaminate that source. Not all farmers in the area oppose the rezoning. But while they are confident development at the port won’t hurt their operations, it would in no way enhance them.
Port officials say they have answered LUBA’s questions about the proposal’s compatibility with surrounding farms and habitat. Opponents have promised another challenge.
We recognize that the site is supremely suited to development. Nonetheless, it should remain farmland.
High-value farmland is more than just a patch of ground with stuff planted on it. Once paved over and developed, it cannot be replaced. Columbia County should keep it producing food.