Company appeals denial of downtown biomass plant

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

Updated: August 15, 2011, 7:11 PM

 

An independent hearings examiner will decide whether Clark County can go forward with controversial plans to build a biomass plant in downtown Vancouver.

Attorneys for Schneider Electric, the private company county commissioners partnered with last month to build a biomass-fueled electricity plant, filed an appeal Monday to the city of Vancouver.

The appeal lists reasons why Schneider Electric believes city Planning Review Manager Chad Eiken erred when he ruled Aug. 4 that a biomass facility isn’t an allowed use under city zoning codes.

Specifically, attorneys argue that Eiken was wrong when he said:

• The proposed central district heating plan is not a waste-related use.

• That even if it was a waste-related use, it would not be permitted outright in the city’s light industrial district.

• The proposed use is not similar to other permitted uses in the light industrial district.

The hearing has tentatively been set for Oct. 12. Eiken said Monday that the hearing has to be scheduled so a decision can be issued within 90 calendar days of the appeal being filed.

The losing side could appeal to Clark County Superior Court.

The county and Schneider Electric want to build a plant at West 11th and Harney streets where wood waste, such as tree limbs, would be burned.

The land, already owned by the county, is zoned for light industrial use.

Biomass is an outright permitted use in light industrial zones, said Schneider Electric’s attorneys, Steve Horenstein and LeAnne Bremer.

David Palmer, program manager for Schneider Electric, said Monday that Eiken’s denial did not come as a surprise.

The Vancouver City Council has been less than receptive to the county’s plans.

Nonetheless, last month County Commissioners Marc Boldt and Tom Mielke voted to sign a contract with Schneider Electric. The third commissioner, Steve Stuart, said he had too many reservations about the project to support it.

Commissioners were told last week by Mark McCauley, the county director of general services, that Schneider Electric was going to appeal the city’s decision.

Had commissioners told Schneider Electric they were no longer interested in pursuing the biomass project, the county would have had to pay the company $75,000.

If the deal falls through due to zoning issues or market forces, the county still must pay a minimum of $75,000 to Schneider Electric. If the project goes ahead, the company plans to invest up to $1.2 million of its own money in pursuing plans to develop the plant.

The longer the county and Schneider work together, the more the county’s liability increases. The county has a maximum liability of $395,000.

In Monday’s appeal, attorneys argued that wood waste qualifies as solid waste, and that waste-related uses are allowed in light industrial zones.

They also argued that a proposed biomass plant is similar to what’s allowed in light industrial zones.

“The impacts from hazardous waste handling facilities, food plants, fabricated metal shops and other allowed uses are similar and could be greater,” they wrote.

It cost Schneider Electric $1,165 to file the appeal.

Currently, Clark County currently operates 11 boilers for its downtown campus.

A new central heating plant would replace fossil fuel heating with one central facility that uses woody debris as fuel.

The biomass boiler system would provide central heating, cooling and domestic water heating for five county buildings: the Public Service Center, courthouse, jail, 911 center and the juvenile courthouse. Schneider would sell excess power, expected to be up to 4 megawatts.

Schneider, a global company with headquarters in France, would build, finance and operate the plant, with no money from taxpayers. It would also lease the property from the county, which is expected to bring the county $1.5 million over 20 years.

Palmer said the county would expect to save $11 million over 20 years.

He said the new plant would reduce fossil fuel emissions from the existing county boilers by about 28,660 tons a year, equivalent to removing 6,200 cars from roads or taking 3,700 homes off the electricity grid.

Neighborhood groups are not on board.

Leaders from both the Esther Short and Hough neighborhood groups have raised concerns about emissions and pollution near residences.