Meeting set over for Oct. 3 as times runs out following proponent testimonies

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: DARRYL SWAN - County commissioners Tony Hyde, Chair Henry Heimuller and Earl Fisher consider testimony in favor of a Port of St. Helens application to rezone land north of Clatskanie for industrial use. More than 200 people turned out Wednesday night at the Clatskanie High School auditorium for what promised to be a controversial Columbia County hearing on the Port of St. Helens’ application to rezone high-quality farmland near Port Westward for heavy-industrial purposes.

Many dressed in yellow and had rectangular blue and white “JOBS” stickers on their chest, a sight offset by a contingent of application opponents who donned red shirts and, in the back of the auditorium, aligned anti-coal pickets. Despite the considerable turnout, the room was at about half capacity, with many leaving before the three-hour hearing adjourned.

A county official said Thursday that 66 people had signed up to speak in favor of the application, slightly less than the 72 who signed up to speak against it.

Some application opponents criticized the Columbia County Board of Commissioners in the weeks leading up to the hearing, arguing its decision to hold the meeting in Clatskanie at 6:30 p.m. on a weeknight discouraged participation from those who live in south Columbia County and work more than an hour’s drive away in Portland and Washington County.

Though the meeting had been scheduled for three hours at the start, application opponents at the end of the night felt justified their participation had been thwarted when time ran out before they were given a chance to speak. The hearing has been set over for Oct. 3 at the Clatskanie High School auditorium.

“It thought it sucked,” said Mike Seely, owner of Seely Mint, a Clatskanie farm that borders the property targeted for rezoning.

Seely, who is opposed to the rezone application because he said it would likely negatively affect his “booming” organic mint farming and confection operation, said he would have liked to have seen more equitable management of the meeting, such as allowing proponents and opponents to speak based on a numbered drawing versus having the entirety of one group dominate the evening.

Seely currently has 19 employees but said he expects that figure to sharply rise as he recently signed distribution agreements with Whole Foods Market, headquartered in Austin, Texas, and is working on an agreement with Quality Food Centers, which carries the brand, Kroger.

As it is, the clock ran out soon after the last person in favor of the application was given a three-minute opportunity to speak. More vocal application critics briefly protested the proceedings by throwing up their hands and raising their voice in unison.

At question is whether the county should reclassify 957 acres of rich farmland, most of it owned by the Port of St. Helens, to a zone distinction that would allow heavy industrial uses. County staff is recommending approval of the application.

Gary Shepherd of the Portland law firm Oregon Land Law, is representing the port and argued the site at Port Westward presents a unique opportunity to attract large traded sector industries and generate family-wage jobs.

“There is no Columbia County economy without an industrial economy,” Shepherd said, pointing out there is no specific industry being considered for the land.

If the rezone is approved, industry applicants would still have to go through local site use hearings to prove compliance with local rules, such as meeting environmental provisions and proving compatibility with industrial and farm operations, according to the county’s staff report.

Shepherd and many of the proponents, including long-time Clatskanie residents, state business officials, union representatives and jobs advocates, made the case an expansion of industrial land at Port Westward, which has river, rail and road access as well as a deep-water port, makes it one of the most attractive sites in the state for big industries.

Some pointed out that, despite the high-quality soils classification, much of the target land has gone to weed and is not currently being used for farming.

“These users need hundreds of acres to support their operations,” Shepherd said of the industry prospects.

The Columbia County Planning Commission in June by a 5-1 vote recommended denial of the application following overwhelming testimony opposed to converting dedicated farmland into a potential site for heavy industry.

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