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County hearing concerning port property belongs in St. Helens

Should we expect the United States Supreme Court, while in the process of addressing litigation that challenges our nation’s understanding of constitutional rights, to shift venues from its location adjacent to the U.S. Capitol and Library of Congress to the state where the question being challenged has originated?

On a state level, when the Oregon Legislature is tackling a new law that affects a state-regulated practice, such as gillnetting on the Columbia River, should we expect the Legislature to uproot for the day and practice its lawmaking in the town where gillnetting would be most prominent? How about when hunting legislation is being addressed? Should the Legislature move its legislative process to the town with the most per-capita hunters in Oregon?

These examples should seem ludicrous.

Likewise, the Columbia County commissioners’ decision to move what has been a controversial land-use decision out of the commission’s regular venue at the Columbia County Courthouse to the Clatskanie High School auditorium should also seem ludicrous.

The Columbia County land-use hearing is centered on the Port of St. Helens’ application to have 957 agricultural acres adjacent to the public Port Westward Industrial Park rezoned for industrial use.

To be clear, we are not entirely opposed to the port’s efforts to rezone the property. We appreciate that decades-old decisions made by a former Port of St. Helens Commission resulted in Portland General Electric having what amounts to veto power over the port’s ability to recruit new industry to Port Westward. For that reason, it makes sense the Port Commission would seek out new industrial land not held captive by PGE. If successful, the port would greatly amplify its ability to draw new industry to Columbia County.

The rationale the county commissioners are publicly providing for moving the meeting to Clatskanie is that they are being favorable to a segment of the public — those in north Columbia County — they assert would be most affected by the county’s land-use decision. In other words, the target land is in north county, so therefore the residents in north county are courteously being offered special accommodation to attend the meeting and have their voices heard as they would be the most affected.

But this is a flawed rationale on several levels.

First, by accommodating those in North County, the county commissioners are equally turning out residents who live and work in south Columbia County, the county’s main population center. Decisions that affect Columbia County and state agricultural lands are decisions that affect all Columbia County residents and businesses, not just a narrow segment. It should be resoundingly clear that the appropriate venue for this controversial meeting is the Columbia County Courthouse.

The decision to change venues plays into the hands of those who believe the county commissioners’ true incentive is to reduce participation from a vocal opposition that appeared en masse at earlier Columbia County Planning Commission meetings at the courthouse, which likely encouraged the Planning Commission’s recommendation to deny the Port of St. Helens’ application.

Consider also this favored statistic quoted by both the Port of St. Helens and Columbia County commissioners when it comes to job creation in Columbia County: 72 percent of county residents commute outside of the county for work, with an unquestionably strong majority of those traveling to Portland. We have no reason to believe that figure is false as it originates from Oregon Employment Department analysts.

Interestingly, however, by moving the hearing to the Clatskanie High School gymnasium and set the time for 6:30 p.m. on a Wednesday, Sept. 18, the county commissioners have made it a considerable hardship for the majority of working Columbia County residents to attend the meeting.

It’s just the type of obstacle to discourage participation from Columbia County’s majority workforce. The three elected Columbia County commissioners — Chair Henry Heimuller, Early Fisher and Tony Hyde — should know better than to purposefully impede that participation, which they have done.

It is also a ridiculous idea that because the Port of St. Helens-owned land is near Clatskanie that somehow the residents of north county will be more greatly impacted due to a rezoning of that property. The property is in a rural area distant from the Clatskanie city limits. Conversely, any resultant rail service to the property targeted for rezoning would have to intersect the communities of Scappoose, St. Helens and Rainier — three cities that have already formally expressed concern about ramped up rail traffic. The county commissioners’ failure to consider those concerns is a further mark against them.

If, indeed, the commissioners are moving the venue for their stated purpose, then we should expect all such future land-use hearings to be held in close proximity to the geographic area in question. Their action in this case establishes a precedent.

By moving the meeting venue to Clatskanie, the county commissioners have unduly raised questions about their motivations and have placed a cloud over the legitimate discussion regarding the port’s rezone application. They can still clear the matter and practice a measure of transparency by moving the hearing to the county seat in St. Helens, where such matters should always be heard.