Photo courtesy Port of St. Helens
For the second time, environmental groups are challenging a decision in Columbia County, Ore., to rezone 837 acres of high-value farmland for industrial use at Port Westward near Clatskanie.
The proposal would nearly double the size of the industrial park, owned by the Port of St. Helens along the lower Columbia River. Port Westward is already home to three Portland General Electric natural gas power plants and the Columbia Pacific Bio-Refinery.
Columbia County commissioners voted 2-1 to approve the port’s rezone application in 2017, allowing businesses to process, store and ship natural gas, wood products and other bulk commodities at the property.
Opponents, however, argue the industrial zone will not only disrupt neighboring farms, but flies in the face of state land use laws intended to protect high-value farms. Columbia Riverkeeper, along with 1000 Friends of Oregon, filed an appeal March 14 to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals, or LUBA, seeking to overturn the county’s ruling.
At the heart of the issue is whether such industrial development is compatible with local agriculture. Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, senior organizer with Columbia Riverkeeper, says the answer is no.
“Industrial development is not a compatible use for farmers, especially farms that are growing sensitive crops,” Zimmer-Stucky said.
Most soils in the rezoned area are Class II and III, which according to the Oregon Department of Agriculture are considered high-value farmland under state law. Irrigation canals and ditches are also interconnected along the low-lying diked lands, Zimmer-Stucky said, meaning that an industrial spill or runoff could spread quickly to nearby mint, blueberry, cattle and poplar tree farms.
Jim Hoffman, owner of Hopville Farms, said water quality is a top priority for his blueberry farm, and the community at large. He said he remains disappointed with the county’s decision to open farmland to “industrial polluters.”
Tracy Prescott-MacGregor, who with her husband, Scott, farms on Erickson Dike Road near Port Westward, said she is also concerned about a potential spill and toxic byproducts of industrial business — especially fossil fuels development.
“My biggest concern is that almost all industry, especially fossil fuel industry, creates byproducts,” Prescott-MacGregor said. “There’s also a potential for spillage of any of these caustic materials. It wouldn’t take very long before the soils would be contaminated.”
If that happens, Prescott-MacGregor said she and her husband would likely have to leave the area. They came in 1999 from Portland to grow their own food, including a large garden, goats, chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys.
“The soils out here are pretty fantastic,” she said. “We are lucky farmers.”
The Port of St. Helens bought the land in 2010, and Paula Miranda, the port’s property and development manager, said they have been approached by a number of companies in recent years interested in the deep water access on the Columbia River.
County commissioners first approved the rezone in 2014, though it was appealed to LUBA and ultimately remanded back to the county. While the port’s latest application does not mention any specific project, Miranda said they will continue to work with farmers to mitigate impacts on their land. She added there are no plans to develop crude oil facilities on the property.
“I personally feel pretty confident that whatever we bring here, we’ll do it the proper way,” Miranda said.
Margaret Magruder, a county commissioner, said expanding Port Westward would provide a real boost to the local economy, and any industrial business looking to site there would be subject to further conditions to protect their neighbors.
“Just because it gets rezoned doesn’t mean that any business that comes along is going to get to site,” Magruder said.
But Scott Hilgenberg, a land use fellow at the nonprofit Crag Law Center in Portland, said the proposal does not justify rezoning agricultural land under Oregon statewide planning goals.
In particular, Statewide Planning Goal 3 aims to preserve and maintain high-value farmland. Hilgenberg, who is representing Columbia Riverkeeper, said the port’s application does not reasonably describe why it needs a Goal 3 exception.
“The concern is the more industrial development that occurs here, the more risk the agricultural community is going to face,” Hilgenberg said. “It’s a question about what the future vision of Columbia County is going to be, and what products does it want to focus on.”
LUBA has not yet scheduled a hearing in the case.