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Anticipating another appeal of rezoning, agency authorizes more money for legal fees

PORT OF ST. HELENS PHOTO - Port Westward, an industrial park in Clatskanie, has been the subject of a years-long effort from the Port of St. Helens to expand the site. On the heels of a 2014 appeal that stalled the project, officials say another appeal is likely. In the wake of Columbia County's approval of a Port Westward expansion requiring a land rezone in Clatskanie, the Port of St. Helens is already gearing up to fight another appeal.

After county commissioners approved the Port's request to rezone 837 acres of farmland on Nov. 29, port commissioners voted last Wednesday, Dec. 13, to pay an additional $6,200 in legal fees incurred from the rezone project — in addition to the $100,000 spent since 2014 — and authorize up to $40,000 more, to respond to any appeal that might be filed in response to the county's approval.

If that happens, it would be deja vu for the county and Port. Columbia County's most recent consideration of the Port's rezone application came after the county approved the same project in 2014, only to have their approval challenged by an appeal, and partially upheld by the state Land Use Board of Appeals that same year.

The Port's request to expand Port Westward Industrial Park required the county to approve a rezone of agricultural land for industrial use, while making the case for skirting state planning goals which protect high quality farmland. LUBA concluded the Port's application lacked sufficient information and was too broad in some portions to justify the elimination of farmland.

Last week, Port commissioners met for the first time since the county's re-approval of the rezone.

Port staff, attorneys and commissioners say another appeal is likely, which will cost the Port more money in attorney's fees to respond to any legal challenges.

While a majority of the Port's elected leaders have routinely advocated for spending whatever it takes to see the rezone through, Port Commissioner Paulette Lichatowich was the lone "no" vote in the 4-1 decision to authorize more legal spending.

Lichatowich"I don't believe that the Port will consider pausing," Lichatowich said Wednesday, a week after the board vote, noting even if LUBA rejects the county's decision again, "I think they fully intend to continue even to the appeals court if they have to."

Prior to voting against the legal expenditure last week, Lichatowich told her fellow commissioners that after studying and considering the issue, she concludes that "the public has not been served well by this process," she said. "The cost alone is staggering, and the assumptions made by staff and attorneys has resulted in the Port district spending more than $200,000 plus five years of staff time, and we are not finished with expenses and staffing time ... perhaps this is still the tip of an iceberg, because we continue down the same path."

Lichatowich called the relentless pursuit of expanding Port Westward a "piecemeal approach" to economic development, and noted state planning rules, as well as legislation passed this year, protect high value farmland.

A Port document notes the $40,000 is "a higher-than-normal fee estimate for a LUBA appeal," but it accounts for the county's decision being challenged by multiple parties, noting attorneys would likely have to respond to "a much higher volume of fully developed and complex legal challenges."

Representatives with Columbia Riverkeeper, an environmental advocacy group that filed the initial appeal against the project, said they are evaluating the options and still determining whether an appeal is appropriate.

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