ENVIRONMENTALISTS and the Port of Portland have been locked for months in a tug of war over 300 acres of open space on West Hayden Island, but last week Portland City Council dealt the greens a crushing defeat. In a 4-0 vote on Thursday, July 29, council got the ball rolling on a plan to convert the island's grassy floodplain into heavy industry.
Though most Portlanders likely associate Hayden Island with images of the roadside Hooters and Jantzen Beach mall, the west side of the island is currently home to 800 acres of untouched habitat for migratory fish and birds.
"This is the last big parcel [in the Portland area] we have to protect," testified Audubon Society of Portland Conservation Director Bob Sallinger. "It is unique and irreplaceable."
If the deal goes through as planned, the Port of Portland will take over 300 acres while the other 500 acres will remain for wildlife.
After a marathon four-hour session of emotional public testimony from environmentalists, longshoremen, union representatives, and East Hayden Island residents last Thursday, each commissioner (except an absent Randy Leonard) read from prepared statements in favor of developing the 300 acres.
The deal will expand the Port of Portland, adding deepwater marine terminals for car shipments and large export shipment. The port says the expansion is crucial to remaining competitive and will create 1,200 jobs.
But the city had yet to confirm the number of jobs the project will create—and the Port's 1,200 job estimate raised skepticism during Thursday's testimony. Business at the Port is down 20 percent since 2008, striking critics as a reason not to expand.
The Bureau of Planning and Sustainability will spend the next year conducting cost-benefit analyses and environmental impact studies, in preparation for a final council vote to proceed with development in December 2011.
One reason for the vehement rally against the plan is because the public workgroup tasked with making a recommendation to city council on the thorny issue could not agree on any recommendation at all.
But during testimony on Thursday, the Port of Portland revealed a last-minute surprise: They can keep their expansion under 300 acres.
"When we were searching for solutions, 300 acres was not on the table," says Anne Squier, who led the volunteer workgroup and says the change makes their 18 months of work look irrelevant. Because of the core premise that the port could not work with any less than 300 acres, the group did not consider whether there were other, smaller plots of land in Portland where the terminals could go.
For now, Sallinger is hopeful. He has advocated for protecting West Hayden Island since the first efforts to develop it in the late '90s. "If the city takes an honest look, the project will fall apart as it did in 1999," he says.