Without hiding misgivings about potential health and ecological problems—and despite new uncertainties brought on by the death of the Columbia River Crossing—the Portland Planning and Sustainability Commission this afternoon voted to recommend the city annex West Hayden Island.
That's no guarantee the Portland City Council will take that controversial step in coming months. But the long-awaited vote's a positive sign for the Port of Portland, which for decades has planned to build a new marine terminal on the island.
With some audience members evincing prodigious arm strength to continuously hold up signs urging a "no" vote, the commission voted 7-3 to recommend the annexation. It will now prepare a memo to submit to city council in advance of an official city vote.
Members very clearly brought different—sometimes contradictory— motivations to their votes, with some placing a premium on health and environmental impacts and others convinced a new terminal could be a boon for Portland's economy.
"I just don’t buy that this is gonna be a huge job creator," said Mike Houck, one of the three no votes. Houck, executive director of the Urban Greenspaces Institute is an old foe of West Hayden Island development—he testified against the land being included in the area's urban growth boundary 30 years ago. Since then, he said, his concerns for how development might affect river species have grown.
Commission member Don Hanson was swayed more by the promise of family-wage jobs the grain and automobile terminals could bring.
"I want it here, and I want the jobs created right here," he said. "That’s my perspective, and I won’t apologize for that."
Today's vote is a setback for environmental advocates, and for Hayden Island residents who've lobbied against the marine terminal. They'll now set their sites on swaying city council in what's sure to be a tortuous process, says Bob Sallinger, conservation director at the Audubon Society of Portland.
"We do look to the mayor to live up to his statements both before and after the election," Sallinger said, referring to Mayor Charlie Hales' assertions that the fate of the Columbia River Crossing would dictate how the city moves forward on Hayden Island.
But the commission's vote also carried disappointment for the Port of Portland. The planning commission was split on annexing West Hayden Island at all, but unanimous in how council should do it if it happens. That involved leaving 300 acres of the island's 800 acres—essentially land where the proposed terminal would sit—zoned as farm or forestland until uncertainties about the project can be hammered out . The designation would prevent the port from building on the land.
"It's a mixed blessing," Port Spokesman Josh Thomas said after the vote.
Though a terminal's been in the planning stages for years, the issue was thrown into confusion last week with the death of the Columbia River Crossing. Planners had considered the giant bridge and highway project to be a given. Its defeat left commission members unsure how Hayden Island might handle increased car and truck traffic brought on by new facilities. According to the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, a terminal could increase traffic by 7 to 9 percent on certain parts of the island by 2035.
"I’ve been a conflicted guy this week," said Chris Smith, another one of the no votes (the third came from commission member Lai-Lani Ovalles). "On the one hand, I want to pinch myself because I cannot believe that the CRC is really dead. On the other hand it couldn’t have happened at a worse time for our planning process."