County looks across street for biomass plant site

Downtown parcel zoned for such a use, officials maintain

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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Clark County thinks it may have found a way to build a biomass-fueled power plant downtown without seeking the approval of the Vancouver City Council: build it across the street from where they were thinking of putting it.

Plans for a biomass boiler system that uses woody forest debris to create heat for five county buildings haven’t changed. But moving it across a few feet of pavement could make all the difference.

The county’s original proposal was to build the plant on land it owns at the corner of West 12th and Harney streets, west of the jail. But the lot is zoned for commercial use, meaning the county would have to get a zone change approved by the Vancouver City Council — and several councilors, along with neighbors, have balked at the idea of smokestacks and delivery trucks downtown. In emails and workshops, the council has pushed the county to move the plant to an industrial area.

The county found that industrial area, mere steps away. It also owns the building across the street at 812 W. 11th St., which, it discovered recently, is already approved for light industrial use.

“The city has asked us in the past to look at an industrial site,” Clark County Program Development Manager Marlia Jenkins said. “We are now looking at a new site that is across the street.”

The county uses that building, a former Pepsi bottling facility, for all sorts of storage. Much of that would be moved, and the building would be retrofitted to fit the boiler systems and 10-foot stacks, Jenkins said.

The county feels that a biomass plant qualifies as a waste-related use, which is permitted outright under city zoning codes.

Vancouver planners aren’t sold on that point yet.

Their interpretation is that biomass would fall under a category not listed in the industrial use code, and the county may need to apply for a code interpretation study and possibly for a text amendment to city land-use code. A change to the code would put the fate of biomass back in the hands of the Vancouver City Council.

“The city council, in our opinion, needs to make a change in land-use code, perhaps to include something like a major utility facility, and then determine where it’s appropriate to be used,” Vancouver Planning Review Manager Chad Eiken said.

But Clark County Commissioner Steve Stuart, who has championed the biomass project as one that helps the county meet its sustainability goals, said he thinks its clear the biomass plant could be put in any industrial area.

“If you fit within the code, you fit within the code, whether they want you to or not,” Stuart said Thursday.

The city defines waste-related uses allowed in industrial zones as: Uses that receive solid or liquid wastes from others for disposal on the site or for transfer to another location, uses that collect sanitary wastes or uses that manufacture or produce goods or energy from the composting of organic material. Examples include: recycling/garbage transfer stations; landfills; composting, energy recovery and sewage treatment plants.

Consultants hired by the county to study the feasibility of a public-private partnership for the biomass plant said this spring that a private business could earn a profit by building the plant and selling the energy produced there.

The county says it would save money and reduce its carbon footprint by buying some of that energy to heat five buildings located near the plant: the Public Service Center, courthouse, jail, 911 center and juvenile courthouse.

The board of commissioners had been set to sign a contract with French company Schnieder Electric to start due diligence on the project on July 5. That contract would put the county on the hook for up to $400,000 if, after the due diligence is done, the county is unable or unwilling to go through with the biomass plant, Stuart said.

So Stuart said he wasn’t comfortable signing anything until there was a clear answer from the city on zoning. The contract signing has been pushed to July 12.

Over the next week, Stuart said he’s planning on meeting with members of the city council and the city manager to find a way to “move forward as partners toward shared goals for sustainability.”

But along with a wary city council, at least one Vancouver neighborhood has also voiced its disapproval. The Hough Neighborhood Association, which lies just north of the proposed biomass plant location, voted unanimously on June 21 to write a letter opposing the project and empowering association leadership to testify against it.

Stuart said he also lives in the neighborhood where the plant is slated to go, and he is also concerned with the potential impacts. But he said that isn’t a zoning issue; it’s one that should be handled as the project is designed.

“This is ridiculous. This isn’t about the zoning,” he said. “Let’s talk about what you really want. I don’t know if this is the project or place where we can actually be partners. That’s what I’m looking to find out over the next week.”

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt wrote to the county commissioners last week to say that if a code change is indeed necessary, that based upon citizen concerns and the information the city council has received, “a compelling case to change the zoning code does not appear to have emerged.”

He said Thursday that “the concerns we’ve heard from the community probably aren’t alleviated by a move to a property in the immediate vicinity.”

But Leavitt also said that it may be too early for an all-out protest of the county’s plans. Due diligence, environmental assessments and other studies are yet to be finished, he said.

“I’m not convinced that we have all the information at our fingertips as a community to really weigh in in an informed way,” he said. “I’m looking forward to receiving that information, whether or not the council has an active role in the decision making process.”

Eiken, the city’s planning review manager, said that if the county’s land-use attorneys disagree with the city’s interpretation of the industrial zone codes, they could appeal to a hearings examiner.

However, the city has received a “lengthy argument” from attorneys for Schnieder Electric as to how they felt biomass qualifies under current laws.

Stuart also mentioned that a hearings examiner could be used to settle the debate. But he added he’s not ready to talk about the legal route yet.

“If (the city) interprets it in a way that is restrictive, that’s when a hearings examiner gets involved,” he said. “That’s why I asked for an extra week to talk with the city council and city manager to figure out how we can actually be partners and not be adversarial. But the reality is: if it’s zoned for it, it’s zoned for it.”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com or http://www.facebook.com/reporterdamewood or http://www.twitter.com/col_cityhall.