Our opinion: Barring new thinking on economic development, new faces to be the norm in local government
On Wednesday, Nov. 29, the Columbia County Board of Commissioners voted 2-1 to approve an application by the Port of St. Helens to rezone 837 acres of rich agricultural land for industrial use at the energy-focused Port Westward, prompting an outcry from farmers and conservationists. Commissioner Alex Tardif cast the dissenting vote.
The Port paid $2.95 million for the 837 acres with the understanding it was zoned for agricultural use and that an exception to state land use law would be needed to site industry there.
The non-unanimous vote marked a notable shift in Columbia County governance and demonstrates a slight rift in the county's approach to industrial development, one largely attributable as a result of fossil fuel projects proposed and implemented at Port Westward. Tardif, who bested 20-year incumbent Tony Hyde in the May 2016 by running on a platform of change, touted his opposition to fossil fuel operations at Port Westward during his campaign. Hyde was a consistent vote in favor of industrial expansion at Port Westward.
Tardif's victory, and similar changes on the Port of St. Helens Commission — especially the 2014 election of Paulette Lichatowich, a one-time critic of Port Westward operations, over incumbent and Port Westward champion Robert Keyser — imply an evolving attitude among the electorate regarding Port Westward. It should not be surprising in the wake of increased signs of climate change, including hurricanes such as the world has never seen and rampant wildfires raging across the West due in part to widespread drought conditions. Columbia County firefighters as of this week were in California helping to battle those historic blazes.
Last week, Doug Hayes, the Port's executive director, submitted an op-ed attempting to explain Port Westward's importance for county economic development. Our take? It's not really about jobs, despite politicians' refrain on that point; it's about expanding the county's tax base.
While we support the concept of an expanded base to provide county services — for example, Portland General Electric provided $4.46 million in tax payments to the county; it's the top taxpayer and its three plants boast more than 70 jobs — the Port's history for recruiting any old business, regardless of potential environmental effect, makes us dubious of Haye's statements. In the article he discusses that coal would not site in the rezone, but his examples of what is possible, such as grain storage, food packaging and distribution, and automobile transfer, fall short of the Port's historical record for recruitment. Instead, we have seen coal proposed, volatile Bakken crude oil, conversations about liquefied natural gas, and now a Chinese government-owned methanol plant, which would use local natural resources, especially thousands of gallons of water from the Columbia River, to manufacturing wood alcohol and export it to China. Nearly all have been low-job operations, and, as others point out, is it more likely for any resultant jobs to be filled by south Columbia County residents or those from Longview, Washington?
Absent in Hayes' article was a conversation about supporting farming operations at Port Westward, even though existing blueberry and mint farming operators in the area against the rezone have testified about million-dollar expansions that could be negatively affected by the spread of industrial land. Not great for the tax base, perhaps, but if it's about jobs, the potential at Port Westward already exists.
Earlier this year, the state Legislature, recognizing the high value of farmland and the fact it is increasingly under threat from fragmentation and conversion to non-farm uses, passed the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program. The program notes that the cornerstone of Oregon's rural communities are working agricultural lands, which are the state's second largest economic driver. We support that program and believe it should be taken into consideration when weighed against any final decision on the rezoned land. Equally, we would like to see county leaders embrace the prospect for the spread of agriculture in Columbia County. Companies such as Oregon Hill Farms and Seely Mints provide a foundation to grow from and a brand potential to embrace. We need to explore those options.
Presently, those considerations from county leaders have been conspicuously absent, despite some county officials' background and success in agricultural. Commissioner Margaret Magruder, for example, found prosperity cultivating a sheep wool insulation business, yet her comments regarding the rezone imply that if quality farmland hasn't been used within the last 25 years, it should be developed for other purposes, including industrial.
There is so much more to consider regarding the rezone, way too much to cover in this small space, but we ultimately expect the county's decision to be appealed, again, to the state Land Use Board of Appeals. In the state's anticipated decision, we expect some consideration for the value of rare quality farmland. Ultimately, however, the Port has submitted a solid application rationalizing the rezone, the unique dock there that has sucked up millions of public dollars to build, and we would not be shocked if it is upheld.
But if current elected county and Port officials continue to dismiss the vocal call for change to Columbia County's economic development approach, policies and practices, we equally would also not be surprised to be discussing newly elected officials, of the Tardif and Lichatowich varieties, before new industry even has a chance to develop on the rezoned land.