BY BRIAN LIBBY
It's a plan the mayor's own handpicked experts have expressed reservations about. It's on an accelerated pace that even its tentative supporters question. And it may be a case of the haves taking from the have-nots that demonstrates Portland isn't as different and progressive as one might hope.
Last night, watching a hearing of the Portland Planning & Sustainability Commission about annexing West Hayden Island's wildlife sanctuary for an expanded deep-water industrial port, I thought of a moment from The Simpsons.
In an episode called "Mr. Lisa Goes To Washington," the family travels to Washington, DC for Lisa to compete in an essay contest. Tasked to write about America's greatness, Lisa begins enthusiastically but, after witnessing a senator accepting a bribe in order for a forest to be clear-cut, instead unleashes a diatribe of bitter commentary. The episode has a happy ending: because of Lisa's essay, the senator is arrested for bribery. I'm not sure the same fate awaits those pressing forward with annexation of West Hayden Island, nor should it. I don't think these are outright villains, but instead people who believe job and industry growth is priority number one. Given the recession of recent years, one can't blame that kind of thinking. Yet we shouldn't sacrifice values to choose a few potential jobs twenty years down the road.
The Portland metro area is said to have a shortage of deep-water ports, the kind that can service today's super-sized ships and barges. (Never mind that Vancouver can help solve that shortage - we're not allowed to think of the two cities on either side of the river as the same, or even having shared interests.) West Hayden Island has admittedly been eyed for decades as a place of industrial expansion. It was first brought into the Urban Growth Boundary in 1983, when the Port of Portland bought the land from PGE. In 1994 it was designated a Regionally Significant Industrial Area.
But West Hayden has also long since been identified as a critical natural area, both as it relates to wildlife and as a crucially important flood plain protecting the city from increasingly likely floods in the new era of climate change. Its more than 800 acres of forest, wetlands, meadows, and shallow water habitat near the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers provide irreplaceable habitat for federally listed salmon and imperiled bird, bat and amphibian species. Bald eagles' nests are a common site there. Quite simply, West Hayden is the largest wildlife sanctuary in our Portland metro region.
Couple that with the fact that West Hayden is home to Oregon's largest manufactured home community, and you have a case of the Powers That Be making an appalling dual-front attack on both the environment and on a poor community.
And here I thought Republicans were in the minority of our city's political leadership.
Last night's hearing before the Planning and Sustainability Commission, the only opportunity for public comment, was practically a caricature of self-serving moneyed interests pitted against community members fighting only for values and their homes.
Whenever someone testified in favor of industrial annexation, he or she came from an organization that would directly benefit from the environmental usurpation. A union representative whose colleagues would be hired for the construction on West Hayden spoke of "family-wage jobs," implying that trying to save endangered species directly resulted in his babies going unfed. A series of business and port alliance representatives, neckties removed from their black suits, sung the praises of industrial development and finished their remarks to the sound of silence from the packed audience or some poor unironic single clap. Whenever a homeowner about to be displaced or choked by diesel fumes pleaded with the council for mercy, or an environmental group leader pleaded for the accelerated timetable to be slowed down, a chorus of applause rang out from the commission chamber and its filled overflow-room.
The annexation of West Hayden Island would be troubling enough in its own right, but now Mayor Sam Adams is attempting to skip the unfolding process and bring about a City Council vote by the end of the year. Even those at last night's hearing tentatively willing to support the annexation admitted they felt blindsided and disappointed by the mayor's effort to seal the deal before he leaves office at year's end. Most of the community groups at the hearing, such as a group of Native American tribes with ancestral connections to the Columbia and to West Hayden, told the Planning and Sustainability Commission they had never been brought to the negotiating table until the deal was already done.
Adams argues that the process of annexing West Hayden has taken some thirty years, and that he's merely taking the needle off a skipping record. But the thirty years of gridlock on this issue ought to tell us something.
Consider the fact that in 2009, after the City of Portland initiated planning for annexation of West Hayden Island, the mayor's handpicked Community Working Group, charged with poring through studies and data to deliver a recommendation on Hayden, could not come up with one. The Community Working Group reported to Adams that it could not resolve the inherent conflict between industry and the environment.
The reason this has taken 30 years is that the city can't seem to accept the inherently incestuous, greedy nature of its actions. We keep revisiting the issue in hopes that the bald eagles won't be in the way, or that the flood plain isn't an ideal way to protect us from floods, and then blame the process itself for stifling the industrial invasion.
The West Hayden Island annexation plan is to take 300 of the remaining 800 acres for Port of Portland expansion. That may sound like a fair trade-off at first: wildlife still gets more than half. But think of those 800 total acres as the last toothpaste in a tube already squeezed to the limit. Aside from a few tiny parcels here and there, the city has already taken virtually all of the wildlife area that ever existed in the Portland area. If we take 300 of 800 acres remaining on West Hayden Island, we're not leaving more than half to wildlife and the floodplain. We're going from 98 percent of local wild areas claimed for development to 99 percent. We're squeezing the very last remnants out of the toothpaste tube and expecting no future cavities to form.
Today people from all over America are turning their attention to Portland as an example of the future of cities: a place where, unlike in Phoenix or Houston or Atlanta, we really do consider what ecologists call the "triple bottom line" of people, planet and profit. But here is a case where people and profit are ganging up on planet, and the charge is being led by leaders of our city. I pity the good people in the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, or the Planning and Sustainability Commission, whose jobs depend on carrying out the mayor's plan even though the very names of their institutions call this into question.
It's not to say that Portland shouldn't be concerned about competing in a global economy. Today's world is far too interconnected economically for us not to make international trade, and the shipping that enables it, a high priority. But Portland may not even be able to attract the new generation of giant vessels to a deep-water West Hayden Island facility; its construction is being hyped as a risk-free endeavor enabling business that is guaranteed to come. But it's really a case of economic speculating. We can look to the real estate market of the past four years to see how speculation can be catastrophic. We can also look across the Columbia river for a solution here: Vancouver has additional space for deep-water ports, yet the city is seen as a competitor rather than a collaborator. Here millions of dollars and countless peoples' homes and livelihoods are at stake, and we're legally obligating ourselves to act deaf to the solutions around us.
The city talks of mitigation for West Hayden Island: the idea that the acreage and wildlife sanctuary lost here can simply be given back somewhere else. But as Audubon Society conservation director Bob Sallinger told the commission at last night's hearing, "Little pieces do not make a whole." We can't set aside thin strips of riverbank, or stitch together patches of trees here and there, and call it proper wildlife protection.
Then there's the mitigation offered to low-income homeowners. Asked by a commission member what could be done to compensate her and her disabled-veteran husband, a resident told last night's audience tearfully that mitigation was never truly possible, only partial compensation for condemning their home against their will. The resident explained how one of her ancestors was executed in Salem, Massachusetts in 1610 for suspicion of witchcraft - and how now, with West Hayden probably doomed, she could understand the feeling of being persecuted.