CLATSKANIE, Ore. — The Port of Columbia County in northwest Oregon is heading back to the drawing board as it works to rezone 837 acres of high-value farmland for industrial development.
The property lies next to Port Westward, an industrial park with about 4,000 feet of deepwater frontage along the lower Columbia River.
On May 22, the Oregon Court of Appeals upheld an earlier ruling that Columbia County erred in 2017 when it rezoned the land. Specifically, the county's decision did not show whether industrial facilities — such as a proposed natural gas-to-methanol refinery — would be compatible with neighboring farms.
Environmental groups oppose the rezone, describing the area as ground zero for a string of fossil fuel projects that could potentially harm local agriculture and salmon runs.
"The Port of Columbia County's proposal to trade the county's prime farmlands for dirty fossil fuel development like fracked gas-to-methanol refineries and oil-by-rail ignores mounting concerns about health, safety and impacts to farmland and water quality," said Dan Serres, conservation director for Columbia Riverkeeper.
Agricultural land in Oregon is protected under Statewide Planning Goal 3, which requires counties to identify farmland and zone it for "exclusive farm use."
To rezone the land, the port has applied for a Goal 3 exception, arguing Port Westward offers businesses a unique resource to process and ship their products. The port is self-scouring, which means it can accommodate larger ocean vessels without being dredged.
Though the port did not name any particular business developments in its application, it did list five broad categories of uses. They include the processing, storage and shipment of forestry and wood products, dry bulk, liquid bulk, natural gas and break bulk.
Columbia County commissioners approved the rezone in 2017, which would have nearly doubled the size of Port Westward. Columbia Riverkeeper and 1,000 Friends of Oregon appealed to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals, which remanded it back to the county over the question of compatibility with neighboring mint, blueberry and tree farms.
LUBA did, however, rule in favor of the county and port regarding two other arguments for a Goal 3 exception — agreeing that the five uses outlined in the port's application do depend significantly on Port Westward as a unique resource and no alternative sites can reasonably accommodate them.
The Court of Appeals affirmed LUBA's ruling, leaving the port to amend its application to the county.
Douglas Hayes, executive director of the Port of Columbia County, said they will meet with their attorneys to address the issue of compatibility with neighboring farms and plans to bring a solution to the port commission by mid-June.
"We have most of the answers for what LUBA was looking for," Hayes said.
One company already looking to locate at the property is Northwest Innovation Works, which wants to build a methanol refinery at Port Westward. A similar proposal slated for Kalama, Wash., has generated controversy and was recently opposed by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.
Julie McIvor, marketing coordinator for NWIW, said they are in the early stages of planning but remain committed to investing in the community. The methanol refineries have promised hundreds of local jobs and billions of dollars in investment.
But Serres, of Columbia Riverkeeper, said building a refinery in Columbia County is "dramatically out of step" with agriculture and natural resources.
"Going forward, it's going to be important for everyone to get a clear understanding of the risks involved with this type of fossil fuel development," he said.