The Columbia County Board of Commissioners on Wednesday, Nov. 13, unanimously approved applications to rezone several hundred acres of agricultural land at Port Westward to allow industrial uses on the land.
The approval excluded two of the three tax lots privately owned by the Thompson family that, along with the Port of St. Helens' application to rezone 786 acres purchased in 2010, had applied for the rezoning. The excluded properties are slightly less than 120 acres.
All together, the total number of acres to be rezoned is roughly 837.
The approval also included a list of six conditions, some of which had been modified from the county's staff report recommending approval. The modified conditions focused on addressing transportation concerns that had been raised during earlier application hearings, including criticism increased rail and truck traffic to Port Westward from any resultant new industry would affect livability in Columbia County.
Additionally, the amended application specifically prohibits using the rezoned property for the "storage, loading and unloading of coal," a frequently heard complaint from opponents who were concerned the property would be used to site a coal transloading facility.
"I feel very comfortable excluding coal from this zone," said Commissioner Tony Hyde.
Despite the amendments and coal exclusion, Mike Seely, a farmer and confectioner who owns nearby property and leases land for his mint farming operation from the Port of St. Helens, said he plans to appeal the rezone application approval to the Land Use Board of Appeals.
"We will go to LUBA on this," Seely said. "This is a huge issue to us."
Seely's business, called Seely Mint, generates more than $2 million in total annual revenue related to organic spearmint and peppermint farming operations and a confectionary that specializes in chocolate-covered mint patties, Seely said. He said he plans to launch three new products in spring and recently secured distribution contracts with Whole Foods Market and Kroger Inc. and is working on others.
Seely has criticized the county for disregarding his concerns about the possibility incompatible industries could build adjacent to his existing operation.
"We look at this as we're just exploding with growth," he said. Seely said the close proximity of heavy industry would compromise his business, arguing that chocolate, a staple ingredient in his products, can pick up even trace levels of airborne pollutants, hence affecting taste.
Seely said he is already exploring new locations for his business, and other critics indicated they would also appeal the county's decision. A petition in opposition of the rezone, available at Moveon.org, has attracted more than a 1,000 signatures from those who live inside and outside of Columbia County.
Board Chair Henry Heimuller said a key piece for him was the port's purchase of the property for the specific use of increasing its availability of land to attract and site new industry.
"I kept coming back to that, through all of the written testimony," Heimuller said. "I kept coming back to the point that when the Port of St. Helens purchased that land, it was with the intent to develop."
Long-term lease agreements with Portland General Electric at Port Westward essentially give the utility veto power over the types of industries that can build at the industrial park. The addition of new land that allows industrial growth expands the port's ability to recruit new industries to Port Westward.