Ports Gain Control of Industrial Lands on Former Umatilla Chemical Depot

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State, federal and local dignitaries celebrate following the ribbon-cutting July 12, 2023, marking the transfer of the former Umatilla Chemical Depot property to the Columbia Development Authority. The CDA Board on March 26, 2024, voted 3-2 to transfer the CDA's industrial lands to the ports of Umatilla and Morrow, leaving no industrial lands for Umatilla County or the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. (Michael Kane/Northeast Oregon Now file photo)

The industrial properties of the former Umatilla Chemical Depot near Hermiston have new owners. At least for the time being.

The Columbia Development Authority owns the site, and three of its five board members voted together Tuesday, March 26, to give the CDA’s industrial lands to the ports of Morrow and Umatilla. The move left no industrial property for Umatilla County or the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

“It was an illegal vote,” Umatilla County Commissioner John Shafer said.

Shafer is the county’s representative on the CDA Board. He and JD Tovey, CTUIR deputy executive director, cast the no votes.

The three yes votes came from Kim Puzey, general manager of the Port of Umatilla and CDA Board chairman, Kelly Doherty of the Port of Morrow and Jeff Wenholz, Morrow County commissioner.

Morrow County also gets no industrial land, but its plan has been to give its share of the Columbia Development Authority site to the Port of Morrow.

According to the motion, the Port of Morrow gets approximately 1,900 acres of industrial property and 634 acres of exclusive farm use property, the Port of Umatilla gets approximately 2,535 industrial acres, including the former chemical weapons incinerator site, and the CTUIR gets 4,019 acres for wildlife habitat.

Greg Smith is the executive director of the CDA. He said he has heard talk for the past couple of months about the possibility of a motion for the ports taking control of the CDA’s industrial land. He said the Port of Morrow notified him March 22 that a memo was coming, but neither he nor the CDA Board saw that document before the March 26 meeting.

“Two minutes before the meeting occurred, I was handed a copy of the motion,” Smith said.

From there, he said, he scrambled to get copies of the motion to the board members and their alternates before the vote, which was the last item on the board’s agenda, “Port of Morrow Request for Property Division.”

Shafer said that is the problem. Per the CDA’s bylaws, he said, board members are to receive motions in advance of any action.

Puzey said he saw the vote as different from Shafer.

“I’m not an attorney and I’m not sure what he’s referring to, but if the by-laws require that the specific language of every motion be in every agenda for every meeting, then the by-laws have been ignored or violated in every meeting for decades,” the CDA Board chair said.

He said the Port of Morrow’s motion was on the agenda with plenty of notice.

“I can’t imagine how anything in a public meeting would ever get done without some latitude,” Puzey said. “I’ve been in the public sector for decades and I don’t recall seeing language for motions be the standard.”

Shafer said before the vote he asked Smith if this was the recommendation from staff. Smith said he recommended against the motion.

Shafer pointed out a similar situation happened less than four years ago.

The CDA Board on Oct. 8, 2020, voted 3-2 to “memorialize” its intent to deed the industrial lands to the Port of Morrow and Port of Umatilla. The representatives of Umatilla County and the CTUIR voted against the move.

Umatilla County commissioners at that time said they felt “blindsided” and “ambushed” because of the decision, which had not been on the agenda for the meeting. That led the Columbia Development Authority to take another vote on Oct. 22 to rescind the prior vote.

Shafer said the vote on March 26 was “kind of ironic” because Doherty is the wife of Jim Doherty, former Morrow County commissioner who was on the CDA Board in 2020.

“Here we are doing the same illegal vote,” Shafer said.

He said the CDA needs to repeat history again and rescind the vote.

“It was done in bad faith,” Shafer said, “and could not have been more of a slap in the face.”

He said that’s because as county commissioner he has been negotiating with Puzey on a deal for the former depot’s industrial lands. Shafer also said if the CDA Board does not take action, the county could take legal action of its own.

Puzey said if the motion in question was illegal, then Shafer made several motions in the CDA meeting that also were illegal.

“I’m not aware of any text for any of the motions he made today,” Puzey said.

Smith said a fractured board was not in the best interest of the CDA or its members. He explained the counties have access to state funds for infrastructure development, the ports have economic development experience, the tribes have that as well as knowledge of working with the federal government. Each entity on the board brings benefits to the region, he said, and they need each other.

“No one can one off any one project,” on the CDA lands, he said. “Everyone has something to offer each other.”

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