An association representing oceangoing ships is suing the Port of Astoria over its $300 fee for pier maintenance.

The Columbia River Steamship Operators’ Association filed suit Friday in federal court in Portland claiming the Port’s fee is unconstitutional.

Waiting on the river

The Port of Astoria is being sued by the Columbia River Steamship Operators’ Association over a $300 fee on passing ships over 250 feet.

The Port Commission in March approved the $300 fee for each ship over 250 feet passing upriver to fund the maintenance of Pier 1, which the Port claims is a vital emergency pullout for ships at the mouth of the Columbia River. The fee became effective in July.

The shipping association has long warned of a potential legal challenge over the fee. The Port has expected one, budgeting $75,000 to defend the fee in court.

Dave Boyajian, a ship captain and attorney with Portland firm Schwabe, Williamson & Wyatt who previously warned the Port Commission against enacting the fee, filed the lawsuit.

The fee “is assessed against most (not all) commercial vessels passing by the Port of Astoria, and it bears no relationship to costs created by or services provided to passing vessels,” he wrote. “Indeed, the vessels do not cost the Port a penny, nor do they request or receive any benefits or services from the Port of Astoria — they just get a bill.”

Will Isom, the Port’s interim executive director, said the Port has so far charged about 250 ships, holding the money in a protected account controlled by the association. Once a legal decision is made on the fee, the money will go to the Port or back to shipping agents, Isom said.

“Ultimately, this just comes down to a legal question, so I don’t see why this can’t move quickly through the legal” process, he said. “It just comes down to the question of our legal ability to assess the fee.”

Boyajian claims the Port has been charging most oceangoing ships, while not assessing the fee to commercial barges that surpass the 250 foot minimum. The Port only assesses the fee to oceangoing ships because of their higher level of risk, Isom said.

The shipping association has cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that shot down a property tax imposed on oil tankers by Valdez, Alaska, because the Constitution bars states from enacting tonnage fees without an act of Congress.

Michael Haglund, a maritime attorney for the Port, has couched the fee’s legitimacy in a previous Supreme Court case, where the Alabama State Docks Commission was allowed to charge passing ships near Mobile a fee for policing.

The association’s suit — first reported by The Oregonian — seeks a permanent injunction and declaration barring the Port from imposing, collecting or using the fee.

Other ports on the river, including the Port of Longview, have objected to the fee.

The shipping association, in a statement, said it is “prepared to work with our river partners to help evaluate options for the Port of Astoria. We want to be a helpful trade partner. The Port has to want the help, and be prepared to set up a healthy process that considers the interests of the Port of Astoria and the Columbia River stakeholders.”

Edward Stratton is a reporter for The Astorian. Contact him at 971-704-1719 or estratton@dailyastorian.com.

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