The Port of Woodland is seeking to realize the potential of land it has owned for more than 60 years as it looks to balance industrial development with public access.
On Sept. 7, the port hosted a community open house for the public to learn more about its work to study 200 acres of property it owns along the Columbia River for industrial uses. The event was the latest in a number of outreach efforts the port has conducted as it analyzes how to use the land.
Development along the Columbia River by the port has technically been going on since 1961 when the Port of Woodland bought its first property at Austin Point, Port of Woodland Executive Director Jennifer Wray-Keene said. The port commission at that time saw a potential for deepwater development along the Columbia River.
In the 1970s, a large grain terminal was proposed. After a dispute with farmers, an agreement was formed that stated the port would not develop that land for decades, Wray-Keene said. She came on board as executive director in 2014 when another grain company eyed the same area.
For development, the port needed to obtain an easement on some property owned by the Washington State Department of Natural Resources that had expired, she said. When that wasn’t possible, the port tried to buy the property outright. After a legal challenge, the purchase was approved in 2019.
Now the port is going through a more methodical process to identify what uses the land could have. A portion of the property is currently being used for dredge disposal, but the port hopes to determine what industrial uses the property is best suited for.
One of the hangups with that process has been delays with Burlington Northern Santa Fe due to turnover. Part of the port-owned property includes the railroad’s main line which could be used by potential industry near the line for transportation to and from the water.
Wray-Keene said the port wanted to be further along in the process concerning the rail portion of the property.
Wray-Keene also said work from engineering firm KPFF will be extended into 2023. The firm is looking to balance industrial property, public access, environmental mitigation and forestry lands.
She said the port is trying to address all of those aspects ahead of time before the permit application to determine what is the best fit.
Transportation is chief among the concerns that were raised by the public during the outreach efforts, Wray-Keene said, though the port has little responsibility over that aspect of any development.
“That’s a (Washington State Department of Transportation,) Clark, Cowlitz and city issue,” Wray-Keene said.
She said the port has offered funds to help with the regional transportation planning, but that process never moved forward.
“We know that this is going to be the biggest issue,” Wray-Keene said.
Though the port is working toward development of the property, breaking ground on any projects wouldn’t happen for at least a decade, Wray-Keene said. Whatever industry comes to the port, it won’t be based on fossil fuels. In 2017 the port commission approved a resolution prohibiting any development on the land to involve that industry.
Wray-Keene said any alternative fuels-based industry would need to meet state greenhouse gas requirements for future uses.
“If they can get permitted and get through the state process, we will not say no, knowing that the state process and what the state could and would approve is much more rigorous than what we would look at,” Wray-Keene said.
Wray-Keene said the port has been cautious about what it pursues out at Austin Point given the agricultural land nearby and the protections from the state that type of use receives.
“We do not want the port seen as the ‘evil empire’ of industrial,” Wray-Keene said.
The Port of Woodland does not have the multiple miles of continuous port-owned land like the Port of Kalama does to the north where shoreline industrial uses are prevalent.
She said the port commission saw what happened from Vancouver to Tacoma and in Kalama, which saw its methanol production facility plant proposal end last year. She said pursuing a similar project isn’t a worthy commodity for the Woodland community.
“What we’re trying to show is that you can have your industrial and public access,” Wray-Keene said.
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