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A solution for two cities

  in Scrolling Box April 28, 2017 3:26 pm

The City of St. Helens, Oregon is looking to redevelop over 200 acres of land along the Columbia River, including a former Boise Wood Products veneer plant site that has since been demolished and a Boise White Paper Mill, where two machines remain in operation. (Sam Tenney/DJC)

The story is a familiar one in Oregon – technology advances and workers in the timber industry are displaced. Mill operators scale down, slowly at first, and ultimately sell their assets and leave. Industrial sites with lingering environmental issues sit abandoned in the heart of town.

It’s the story of tiny St. Helens, 28 miles downriver from Portland. But there, backers of a long-percolating redevelopment plan have a unique opportunity to reimagine their entire waterfront and restore a vibrancy missing since the loss of heavy industry.

The plan involves a long-shot idea that could aid two environmental cleanup efforts at once.

Essentially, the Portland Harbor Superfund Site needs to find a permanent facility to take its dredged spoils, and the city of St. Helens needs to fill a giant hole that now is a wastewater lagoon.

“The opportunity that they have is to fill a hole and make money,” said Kevin Parrett, cleanup section manager for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

The high-end estimate of potential income is around $150 million.

“It’s really up to the city of St. Helens whether they’re able to pull this off.”

Mayberry vs. Beirut

Boise Cascade still operates two paper machines in St. Helens, but the company’s presence here is much diminished from the town’s heyday. Four mills ran in the 1960s, when about 5,000 people lived here. The population now is nearly three times that.

About three-quarters of St. Helenians commute each day outside the county. Most take the relatively gridlock-free drive to Portland.

Many new residents are young with small children and, thus, less disposable income, according to City Administrator John Walsh. But in St. Helens, unlike Portland, they can live in a nice three- or four-bedroom house with a yard and driveway, he said.

“They like it here; it’s that rural way of life, but it’s changing,” he said. “We have a lot of development pressure, and not just on the water. All our properties are seeing pressure.”

About four years ago, Boise Cascade Wood Products announced it would finally close its veneer plant after years of ramping down. The city jumped at the chance to negotiate to purchase the 25-acre property, hoping to beat the large developers to the table.

The city today controls it as well as an adjacent 200-acre property where Boise Cascade operates its two remaining paper machines, and formerly ran much more.

A big-picture vision to redevelop this prime land – sections of which today resemble “Beirut,” according to Walsh – has taken shape. Plans call for Portland-style mixed-use buildings – i.e., ground-floor retail space below offices and residential units. And because the city is made up of several cities that grew into each other long ago, the town’s disjointed road system will have to be addressed before it can any handle additional volume.

To pay for it, an urban renewal district has been created. Development on the site would help too. The city wants to soon start looking for a developer.

Like most growing small towns, there’s a contingent in St. Helens resistant to change, said Roni Bartlett, co-owner of the Klondike Restaurant & Bar, a classic steak-and-seafood American eatery located near the veneer property. When she moved here 20 years ago, the city resembled Andy Griffith’s “Mayberry,” she said. It was nice, but new energy is nice too.

Bartlett supports the redevelopment plan, especially if it includes live-work space and more retail.

“Getting people to change their minds about growth is a challenge, but I do see things swinging that way,” she said.

Working plan

Because it’s been an industrial site for more than 100 years, environmental remediation is expected to be needed at spots on the ground around both parcels. But a far larger issue is the old Boise lagoon, a 40-acre, 35-foot-deep log pond between the two parcels that the city uses as a backup sewage storage facility.

But it’s far larger than the city needs (the primary pond is only 2 acres). Beyond that, at the bottom is about 8 feet of toxic material that must be addressed before the land can be dedicated to public use.

City officials in St. Helens are considering filling a 40-acre wastewater treatment facility and lagoon with dredged materials from the Portland Harbor Cleanup or Multnomah Channel. (Sam Tenney/DJC)

A plan hatched by consultants along with Walsh’s office and the city council would repurpose the lagoon by adding a liner, filling it in and capping it to create developable land.

The city’s options are either buy fill (but such an amount probably wouldn’t be affordable because the pond is so big) or seek a state permit to accept solid waste.

The city has proposed to seek a permit to accept dredged spoils from the Portland Harbor cleanup, but it won’t be easy. For one thing, residents who’ve already complained about being left in the dark have expressed reservation about their city taking Portland’s toxic waste.

“I hear people say, ‘We don’t want toxic waste,’” Commissioner Doug Morten said. “Well, we have it. We have it right now. The question is: What do we do about it?”

The harbor cleanup, in the works for more than a decade, is a whole other can of worms. The metal-impacted soils in the channel of the Willamette River in Portland are categorized according to the danger they pose. The sort of material St. Helens would accept is not the most contaminated option. That sort of permit would likely be too difficult to obtain. The spoils eyed by St. Helens tend to be pretty clean, and often are reused by the Army Corps of Engineers for beach replenishment projects, Parrett said.

Another hitch in the idea is the fact that filling the lagoon would require relocation of the city’s wastewater plant. This would likely be paid for with some of the money St. Helens receives to accept the waste.

A bill currently in the Oregon Senate’s Ways and Means Committee would direct $1.5 million toward an all-important engineering study that’s the next step in getting the lagoon certified as a landfill site.

Not many good, cost-effective locations exist to accept the harbor’s waste, Parrett said. The Hillsboro Landfill, for example, wouldn’t be feasible because a near-constant stream of trucks would be required to haul the material.

The only feasible way to move so much material is by rail or by barge. The other option would be to transport the material upriver to landfill sites in the Columbia River Gorge.

Leaders of the harbor cleanup have puzzled over this piece for years.

“In my mind,” Parrett said, “this is such a perfect solution for Portland Harbor dredge spoils, and it’s such a perfect solution for the city of St. Helens. The city of St. Helens has a need. The Portland Harbor has a need. This really could be a perfect marriage.”

But standing in the way is the public engagement process.

Changing of the guard

Randy Peterson, 61, is a lifelong St. Helens resident – a retired firefighter who served half of his life on the city commission, half that time as mayor.

For years Peterson championed the waterfront redevelopment, including the idea to fill the lagoon with dredged spoils. He pushed for a waterfront boardwalk, in part so that views could be protected, and for mixed-use buildings, so developers could immediately start recouping costs with the residential units.

“It’s beautiful out there,” he said. “I just want everybody to be able to go down and enjoy the river.”

Peterson was ousted as mayor in November when a virtual unknown received 51 percent of the vote. He had run into trouble when he tried to sell some of his privately-owned land to the city, according to Morten. That didn’t look good.

His opponent, landscaping company owner Rick Scholl, used an active Facebook presence and a stockpile of yard signs to ride an anti-establishment mood into office.

“He ran a campaign that nobody took seriously,” Morten said. “And now he’s mayor.”

St. Helens has a unique, hybrid weak-mayor form for government. It’s similar to Portland’s in that commissioners oversee various bureaus. But St. Helens has a fully empowered city manager and professional department heads who are overseen by citizen-commissioners. The mayor’s role can be as strong or as weak as that mayor makes it.

So far, things have been harmonious with Scholl helming meetings, according to Morten.

“It’s really hard to tell because he’s never held office before, and everything about this, all this stuff, is brand-new to him,” Morten said. “But he is enthusiastic.”

Scholl said he’s still worried about how much of the development process is occurring behind closed doors and out of view of the public. But he likes a plan that includes a waterfront park, and he likes what he’s heard about the waste the town would accept at its lagoon, especially if it lowers sewer rates.

“I’m not an expert on this stuff,” he said. “That’s why I’ve been trying to educate myself, and that’s what I tell members of the public: educate yourself about what is going on down here.”

For the moment, the council unanimously supports the lagoon plan. But the public is fickle, and the clock is ticking.

“Government is very slow,” Scholl said. “And there’s a lot that has to be done.”

A solution for two cities