By Lyndsie Kiebert
Anti-smelter watchdog groups are urging interested parties to keep an eye on Pend Oreille County as the Planning Commission continues to work on its 2020 Comprehensive Plan update — an effort that many believe might pave the way for the proposed Newport, Wash., silicon smelter through a wholesale rezone of all parcels designated “Public Lands,” including the property owned by Canadian company PacWest Silicon.
The next Pend Oreille County Planning Commission meeting is slated for Tuesday, Feb. 16 at 6 p.m. via Zoom.
PacWest has been vocal about its need for a rezone on its property to allow for industrial use, staging the fight against the smelter as a conflict over zoning changes that might make the project possible.
A Pend Oreille County Comp Plan amendment proposed in 2019 to abolish the “Public Lands” designation and replace it with “Public/Institutional Uses” drew firm opposition from area residents worried about what such a “blanket rezone” could mean for the future of the highly unpopular smelter project. County commissioners struck down the proposed changes in December 2019, with former-Commissioner Steve Kiss telling the Reader at the time that, “we feel that the Public Lands designation can be better addressed during our upcoming 2020 Comprehensive Plan update.”
The 2020 Comprehensive Plan update is now in the works, though it is unclear when the proposed changes will be up for official public review. Recent events suggest it could be soon: According to minutes from the most recent Planning Commission meeting on Jan. 21, Ben Floyd of White Bluffs Consulting — which is assisting Pend Oreille County in its Comp Plan update — said “he feels that the Comp Plan is ready for more formal public review.”
“Based on that info, hold another workshop and the Planning Commission is ready for the next steps,” the minutes continue.
Part of the changes currently under consideration would be to abolish the Public Lands designation — much like in the failed 2019 amendment — and piece up the 62% of the county currently zoned as Public Lands into different designations.
It is unclear whether PacWest’s property could obtain a new designation, paving the way for industrial uses such as the smelter, but groups like Responsible Growth Northeast Washington and Citizens Against the Newport Silicon Smelter are watching closely.
“What we’re saying — what we’ve been saying all along — is that the needle needs to be pulled out of the haystack,” said Norm Semanko, a lawyer representing CANSS. “The PacWest property needs to be evaluated individually on its own merits, as to whether it merits a rezone. We do not believe it does. [PacWest] must not believe it does, because they are hoping for this blanket rezone to allow for a transformation of their property to industrial use.”
Beyond obtaining a rezone to make industrial use possible on the property, PacWest will also need to undergo a stringent permitting process for its proposed smelter operation.
When asked if the company had applied for any of the permits necessary to operate a smelter on its property, or whether it is waiting for a rezone before moving forward with the project, a spokesperson for PacWest told the Reader in an email: “HiTest/PacWest is a patient landowner in the region. We are looking forward to seeing the Pend Oreille Comprehensive Plan rewrite and we will review how it impacts our property once it is completed.”
Pend Oreille County officials did not reply to multiple requests for comment.
Find information about joining the Feb. 16 planning commission meeting at pendoreilleco.org/your-government/community-development, or contact the Pend Oreille County Community Development department at 509-447-4821.
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