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County delays vote on Weyerhaeuser land adjustments

Lot line adjustments could be first step toward housing development on forest land

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: COURTNEY VAUGHN - Tim Scherer, operations manager of Weyerhaeuser's western region, addresses Columbia County commissioners Wednesday, Oct. 7. Scherer said the company wants to sell off some of the lots in its primary forest zone just outside St. Helens.Primary forestland owned by Weyerhaeuser Co. just outside St. Helens could be reconfigured and eventually sold off for development.

After hearing comments and testimony from Weyerhaeuser representatives, along with neighbors and county staff Wednesday, Oct. 7, Columbia County’s Board of Commissioners delayed voting on a request from Weyerhaeuser for 21 property line adjustments on land in the company’s forest inventory.

The issue came before the county commissioners after the county’s Planning Commission denied Weyerhaeuser’s request for the lot line adjustments in June.

The timber company then appealed the Planning Commission’s decision to the Board of Commissioners in August.

Weyerhaeuser officials say the company wants to subdivide a large section of its forestland near Hankey and Robinette roads, which would allow the individual plots of land to be sold and possibly developed with houses in the future.

The timber company says it currently has no plans to develop houses on the lots.

Kim O’Dea, an attorney representing Weyerhaeuser, urged county commissioners to focus solely on the request for lot line adjustments.

“You will not find, in any of the applications in front of you, any request for development,” O’Dea said. “There isn’t any criteria where the applicant’s intent needs to be addressed.”

But neighbors and county staff said rural housing has been the company’s plan for that land all along, noting plans presented to the county in 2013 for a housing development called Hideaway Hills in the same area where Weyerhaeuser wants to create new lot lines.

“They’ve named this development,” Glen Higgins, chief planner for Columbia County, told commissioners.

Higgins said if homes are built on the lots, it creates the need for services such as water, electricity and a fully developed road. Weyerhaeuser has already constructed a new access road on a portion of the property, a county staff report notes.

Residents said lot line adjustments pave the way for a housing subdivision in an area intended for the preservation of commercial forestland.

Lot adjustments are typically decided by the director of Land Use Planning and don’t require public hearings, unless someone submits a referral requesting one to allow public comment.

St. Helens resident Ann Mathers and four other residents who live on property abutting the Weyerhaeuser land requested the case go before the county’s Planning Commission in August, stating concerns about damage to an aquifer, and the potential for flooding and erosion a housing development would cause.

Mathers has lived in the area for 17 years. She was first notified about the proposed land reconfiguration because the back edge of her property touches Weyerhaeuser’s property. She said she and her neighbors felt the need to challenge the proposal to protect the integrity of the land.

She spoke during Wednesday’s public hearing, referring to Weyerhaeuser’s tactics as “high-powered legal maneuvering” to achieve the highest profit, rather than preserve the forest.

“It’s totally disingenuous to contend that this whole process is just about lot line adjustments,” Mathers told commissioners.

Mathers said she understands the desire for Weyerhaeuser to sell real estate, but thinks it should be done in larger portions that can be logged, rather than small properties designated for home development.

SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: NICOLE THILL - A portion of forest land owned by Weyerhaeuser could be reconfigured into smaller lots that could eventually be developed with housing. The timber company is seeking Columbia County's permission to readjust more than 20 property lines. “I’m trying to be respectful of their rights as land owners, but I would like them to be respectful of my right as a landowner to not destroy up here,” Mathers said. “It’s not to say, ‘Oh no, not in my backyard,’ but it’s to protect it.”

Board members from McNulty Water District said they would work with Weyerhaeuser to develop a way to service any future homes with water, but attempts to drill more than 20 private wells could damage the district’s aquifer.

Tim Scherer, operations manager for Weyerhaeuser’s Western Region, said after the hearing that the company would most likely sell the individual lots and let the new owners decide whether to apply for building permits. Weyerhaeuser hopes to establish service lines for utilities in the area, then pass the cost on to future land owners, he explained.

“Our intention is to develop them as higher and better use lots,” Scherer said. “People are always looking for land they can put a house on.”

Commissioner Tony Hyde noted that current tax deferments on forestland that have been in place for years would end once trees were cleared for development, leaving new land owners to pay back those taxes.

The commissioners continued the public hearing to Oct. 28, allowing additional written comments to be submitted until Wednesday, Oct. 14.