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Energy ordinance proposal faces legal challenges

COURTNEY VAUGHN - A unit train carrying crude oil passes through Scappoose on a fall afternoon in 2014. An initiative to try and prevent crude oil and other fossil fuels from being transported in the county is facing legal challenges from opponents.

Two Columbia County residents have filed legal objections to a proposed ordinance intended to move the county away from fossil fuel dependence.

The ordinance, called the Sustainable Future Energy Ordinance, was introduced in the county in December as a petition to get on the May 2015 ballot. The first version of the initiative failed to meet the county’s requirements for circulation to collect signatures, but a second version was approved last month.

Though approved, there was insufficient time to collect the signatures needed to place the ordinance on the May ballot. And now the proposal faces more hiccups.

The ordinance would establish a community bill of rights, giving county residents the ability to self-govern in order to create policy for renewable energy and prohibit fossil fuels from being transported, extracted, produced or even burned in the county. The ordinance would have significant impacts to rail activity and dismantle the rights of corporations to operate as people for the sake of profit within the county.

The ordinance, however, wouldn’t affect gas stations or stop the transportation of nonrenewable fuels that are solely used to provide electricity and heat.

Last month, Ron Bodell and Alta Lynch, both of Scappoose, jointly filed two complaints challenging the legality of the proposed ordinance.

Gregory Chaimov, the attorney representing Lynch and Bodell, says the ordinance, as written, is unconstitutional and proposes changes to policy that are beyond the county’s authority.

The complainants are asking the District Attorney’s Office to change the name of the proposed ballot title and requesting the county to reverse its approval of the ordinance for circulation, as well as pay for all costs incurred to file the complaint.

“County initiatives are allowed to be on what are called matters of county concerns,” Chaimov said. “This measure addresses issues we think a judge should take a look at. ... We question whether a county can tell the state and federal government what to do.”

County attorney Sarah Hanson confirmed this week that the county has yet to respond, but will do so within the required 30-day timeframe.

An attorney for Tracy Prescott-MacGregor, Brady Preheim and Nancy Ward, the initiative’s proponents, filed a request to be considered as intervenors in both cases.

“This ordinance is based on the people’s right to local community self government,” Ann Kneeland, attorney for the proponents of the ordinance, said. “I think it’s indicative of growing concerns of corporate domination. ... It’s doing what hasn’t been done before, which is to codify those rights to self-govern.”

Kneeland said efforts to establish a community bill of rights have also been introduced in Lane, Benton and Coos counties.

Ward said the trains transporting crude oil along rail lines in the county present “high risk and no real benefit.”

“In our county, railroads rule ... they have remained untouchable. That may have worked to everyone’s benefit in the 1800s, but they don’t serve us that way today.”

A court hearing has not yet been scheduled.