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Commission asked to hold on zoning decision

Port says no immediate development plans for land near Port Westward


by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - The port proposes to amend the zoning on approximately 957 acres of agricultural land near Port Westward. The Thompson family owns 171 of these acres. The proposed rezoning of agricultural property to industrial use near Port Westward in Clatskanie has sparked more than just a conversation about land use.

Questions about train traffic, coal exportation and transparency at the Port of St. Helens were also raised in testimony at the Columbia County Planning Commission meeting May 20.

Opponents to the zoning amendment have asked the planning commission to delay a decision until the port reveals its development plans for the site.

But, says Port Executive Director Patrick Trapp, there are no plans to reveal.

“There really is no one targeted for that property,” he said after the meeting where more than a dozen people spoke out against the proposal and no one spoke in favor of it.

Critics of the proposal to rezone approximately 957 acres of land from agricultural to industrial use say it is a ploy by the port to open up industrial land and pave the way for coal-export businesses interested in Port Westward.

Power company Kinder Morgan was pursuing a lease with the port, examining available sites at Port Westward. The company’s first pick was land under long-term lease to Portland General Electric.

However, PGE officials made it clear the utility company was not interested in subleasing the land, citing concerns coal dust could harm its own power operations.

A huge chunk of the port-managed Port Westward property is under this long-term lease to PGE, leaving the port approximately 83 acres to work with, said the port’s attorney.

“It has provided significant challenges for approaching development,” Trapp said about PGE’s lease. “It’s not that we don’t work together. I think that we do. We sometimes have different goals.”

“We’re not against growth,” said Sloan Nelson, a business owner in Rainier and city council president. “We’re not against jobs.”

Still, he said the port’s decisions are being made “on the backs of the port owners.”

“I feel as though we’re being traded for someone else down the tracks,” he said, asking for the port to work toward improving existing train tracks and roads before looking at industrial expansion. He pointed to the dangerous A Street section of railroad track in Rainier which has come under scrutiny countywide and by state Sen. Betsy Johnson.

“I think the cart is before the horse in terms of the rezoning,” Nelson said.

Opponents of both the rezoning and increased train traffic have called for more studies. Officials with the city of Rainier have said they do not support increased train traffic through the town, while the Scappoose City Council has declined to take a position on any potential hazards or benefits associated with coal trains coming through the county until the port provides further information in the form of impact studies and other studies.

The port has made no move so far to provide these studies.

“I see the port partnering with a lot of folks to address rail issues,” Trapp said. “Is it our primary responsibility? Obviously we don’t think so. We can’t control what comes down the railroad.”

“We have the ability to address how the rail is used for our port-owned spurs,” he added. The port maintains a number of spurs and leads on its various properties, including a lead at Port Westward.

The planning commission closed oral testimony May 20 but has left the record open for written testimony. The hearing will continue on June 17.