Council’s surprise move may scuttle biomass plant plans

City OKs moratorium on development in area of proposed site

By Andrea Damewood, Columbian staff writer

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In a surprise move Monday evening, the Vancouver City Council made a decision that places the future of Clark County’s proposed downtown biomass plant in jeopardy.

The council unanimously agreed to an immediate six-month emergency moratorium on development in the downtown zone where the county and its private partner, Schneider Electric, want to locate a biomass electricity generating plant.

The city’s action came not long before an expected decision from a hearings examiner about whether the city’s original rejection of Schneider’s application to build downtown was valid.

The moratorium means it’s highly unlikely that Schneider — which would build and operate the $28 million facility without any public money — will be eligible for an $8 million federal grant that expires at the end of the year.

“We would be stopped in our tracks as I understand it,” Clark County Administrator Bill Barron said Monday after the city council’s vote. “(The grant) is one of the keys to the project in terms of it penciling for Schneider.”

But county staff members, who had little warning of Monday’s moratorium decision, said that they still need to confer with Schneider and the company’s land use attorney to determine what they will do next.

“It’s definitely a serious threat to the project,” said Mark McCauley, the county’s general services director.

David Palmer, project manager for Schneider Electric, said late Monday that he had just heard of the city council’s action and called it “unprecedented and unexpected.” “Schneider Electric is going to review the language of the moratorium and look at our options and we’ll go from there,” he said.

The company is postponing a planned open house set for 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Vancouver Community Library until it’s clear on whether the project will move forward, Palmer said.

Vancouver provided no notice before placing the moratorium on the city council’s agenda Monday night, a move that is allowed under state law, Assistant City Attorney Linda Marousek said.

“It’s one of the few tools local governments have to really take control of their land use in an important situation,” she said. “Cities are really reluctant to do this in most cases.”

The city and county have been squared off over the idea of a biomass plant at West 11th and Harney streets almost since it was first proposed.

City leaders — and several downtown neighborhoods — have cited concerns about pollution, odor and traffic. They’ve also said that the city’s vision for downtown is to move away from industrial uses to more commercial and residential development.

The county has maintained that pollution and other factors would be minimal, and that the plant represents a sustainable way to heat and cool five county buildings at no additional cost to taxpayers. Schneider would also likely generate extra electricity that could be sold to the Bonne-ville Power Administration.

The moratorium represents the latest step in a series of land use battles the two sides have waged.

The city first rejected Schneider’s application for development at the site, saying a biomass plant is not allowed in the location’s zoning — a light industrial overlay in the city center district.

Schneider Electric paid $1,165 to appeal the ruling, and the two sides argued their case in a marathon five-hour hearing before Hearings Examiner Sharon Rice on Sept. 28. Her decision is expected as soon as this week.

Vancouver Planning Review Manager Chad Eiken said that the emergency moratorium wasn’t the result of the city hearing any news on the possible outcome of Rice’s ruling.

“We haven’t received the decision,” he said. “We’re exercising an abundance of caution.”

City councilors said they want to see the temporary development ban in place to give time to the city’s planning commission to draft a new proposal for zoning in the light industrial overlay district.

“It’s my understanding that our city center vision is to transition away from industrial uses,” Mayor Tim Leavitt said.

It’s not clear what Clark County’s financial liability would be should the moratorium cause the project to be scrapped.

A contract between the county and Schneider Electric poses up to $395,000 in liability should the county back away from the plant.

However, the county’s McCauley said Monday night he believed the county would owe nothing if the project died because of the moratorium.

The moratorium also prevents existing businesses in the light industrial zone from applying for new development. But only 12 parcels between McLoughlin Boulevard and West Eighth Street are affected — and Eiken said that none of the other businesses has any such applications filed with the city.

The city council must hold a public hearing and vote again on the moratorium within 60 days. A public hearing is currently scheduled for Dec. 5.