Illustration by Ryan Alexander-Tanner

BOB SALLINGER had heard the same whispers I had when I called him for a response last Wednesday, January 8. The Port of Portland was about to announce its decision to pull back, for the foreseeable future, a controversial plan to build on West Hayden Island.

And Sallinger, the Audubon Society of Portland's conservation director, was nervously ebullient. The plan's demise would mark the second time in nearly two decades of his advocacy that the Port had backed down in the face of economic uncertainty and sustained community outcry.

"I've been through this before."

He told me a quick story from 13 years ago, the last time the Port came close to winning the City of Portland's permission for a new deepwater marine terminal.

"The last time they pulled it, they took me out for lunch and told me all the reasons. And then they decided not to [immediately pull it]," he said of the Port. "And then all hell broke loose when they finally did pull it."

Not long after we spoke, confirmation arrived. Bill Wyatt, the Port's executive director, announced he'd broken the news to Mayor Charlie Hales earlier that morning with a withering letter.

The Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission had recommended last summer that city commissioners approve the project—but with strict requirements for offsetting environmental damage. Wyatt decided those conditions were too costly and that it wasn't worth trying to persuade Portland City Council to soften them.

"From our conversation," he wrote to Hales, referencing a meeting last month, "I understand you believe the council is unwilling to take action on a modified proposal."

The seeming finality of Wyatt's decision shocked almost everyone I spoke with. Most had expected at least an attempt to keep negotiating, even if that attempt ultimately failed.

"I had expected further discussion," Commissioner Steve Novick told me, confirming his interest in trying to "bridge the gap" over mitigation, potentially through property tax revenue from development.

"A couple of months ago, [city planners] said they didn't think we'd get very much additional tax revenue. That left me somewhat at a loss for bright ideas," Novick continued, adding he was "surprised" nonetheless that the Port had dropped out.

Wyatt's language—paraphrasing Hales as putting the onus on "the council"—also stirred some interesting political questions. Was Hales counting himself part of "the council"? Or had he been reporting back to Wyatt on a council majority he couldn't buck?

Hales' spokesman, Dana Haynes, quickly told me the mayor "supports" the environmental fixes sought by the planning commission. Hales had already distanced himself from the proposal by tying it, last year, to the troubled Columbia River Crossing.

But Commissioner Amanda Fritz suggested things weren't so simple.

Describing herself as the most intractable commissioner, she credited "quiet conversations with two of my colleagues" for shaping the council's "consensus."

She wouldn't say which two colleagues, of course. Was it Hales and Novick? Or was it Novick and Commissioner Nick Fish, up for re-election this year?

Fish, during a hearing on the Port proposal last fall, was as blunt as Fritz with concerns over environmental damage and lackluster economic promises. (You'll notice I'm not even mentioning Dan Saltzman, whose office never called me back, despite repeated requests.)

Maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe what matters is the result.

As Fish put it, "We never got to a viable deal."

EDITOR'S NOTE: This column has been updated to include some additional clarification on Commissioner Steve Novick's approach to negotiations with the Port.