Negotiations for water rights are the next hurdle the Columbia Development Authority is facing in the process to transfer the former Umatilla Chemical Depot land from the U.S. Army to the local reuse authority.
Greg Smith, executive director of the development authority, told the board that the Army’s Base Realignment and Closure staff have proposed giving the authority the use of two wells, totaling about 25 percent of the site’s water capacity.
“That is not going to get us where we want to be,” he said.
Smith said he had expected an offer closer to 50 percent, based on a water study indicating that amount would not encroach on the National Guard’s water needs for its portion of the depot land. He told the board he thanked the BRAC office for opening the conversation about water but was firm that the two wells would not be enough to make it worthwhile for the reuse authority to take the land off of the federal government’s hands.
“You’ve made it very clear to me that we want to be very professional and consensus-minded, but also that you need the land to be free, need it clean and need it with water,” he said.
Smith said the Army had heard about the water funding package the state legislature passed to provide more water to the Umatilla Basin and assumed that some of that water could be used for the site. He said he explained that the water was already committed to much more attractive agricultural projects and wasn’t available for the development authority’s use.
During Thursday’s meeting Smith also broached the question of applying an enterprise zone to at least portions of the depot site zoned for industrial use. Port of Morrow director Gary Neal said an enterprise zone — which gives developers a break on property taxes for the first few years of a project — was a must, considering any developer shopping for a site would be offered a tax break at other potential locations in the state.
“I think if you’re not going to have one, you’re not going to be in the game,” he said.
The question that remained unanswered during the meeting was whether the Columbia Development Authority would apply to the state for an enterprise zone, keeping in mind that the authority was expected to last seven years after the land transfer, or if something should be cobbled together from Umatilla County, Morrow County and Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation enterprise zones.
The meeting took place in the Stafford Hansell Government Building in Hermiston, signifying the change from administrative functions being housed by the Port of Morrow to being under the umbrella of Umatilla County. Smith said the change was suggested because up to 80 percent of the future economic development on the depot land is expected to take place on the Umatilla County side of the line.
When Smith was hired as executive director he opted to work as a contractor instead of an employee because he already had a benefits package from his other job as a state representative. When the federal Office of Economic Adjustment recently renewed the grant that funds the Columbia Development Authority, however, it said that Smith must be an employee and the money for benefits was a “use it or lose it” situation in which the board would no longer be able to offer benefits to potential future executive directors if it didn’t start offering them to Smith.
The board voted to give Smith an unspecified amount of cash in lieu of benefits so that they would not lose the funding in case something happened to Smith and a new executive director was needed.
At the end of the meeting the board listened to a short presentation from Northwest Oregon Water Association director J.R. Cook. He noted that the association was now able to move “fairly fast” on its flagship water project after the Umatilla Basin funding package was approved by the legislature and needed a final design completed by February 2016.
He said if the association was given permission to run a 42-inch pipeline inside the east fence at the depot it would be much easier than trying to get easements from nine different property owners on the other side of the fence.
“There will be a trench, we’ll put the pipe in, put the sand back over it and in a year you won’t even know it’s there,” Cook said.
Smith encouraged the board to sign a letter in support of asking the Army for the easement before the land is officially transferred over to the Columbia Development Authority.
“I think this is a great opportunity for us to help a partner,” he said.
The board voted unanimously to sign the letter.
In other business the board also reviewed the completed survey by Ferguson Surveying and Engineering and discussed the process of updating the master lease with the Army that is allowing the authority to make some revenue by renting out the cement igloos on the site to the Walla Walla Foundry and other entities.