Clatsop County will once again have to decide the merits of a proposed 41-mile segment of pipeline that would bring natural gas to Warrenton for export.
The Land Use Board of Appeals issued a ruling Friday that found Clatsop County Commissioner Peter Huhtala was not impartial when voting to deny the Oregon LNG land-use application in October.
The final opinion by the state board requires the county's decision to be remanded and re-evaluated by Clatsop County commissioners.
Huhtala will likely have to recuse himself during the upcoming process, leaving Chairman Scott Lee and Commissioners Sarah Nebeker, Dirk Rohne and Matt Samuelson to issue a new decision.
Clatsop County commissioners will hold an executive session Wednesday to evaluate LUBA's decision and determine how to proceed.
Huhtala did not wish to comment on the ruling.
Five commissioners unanimously denied the pipeline application in October. Debra Birkby has since resigned from District 5 and been replaced by Samuelson.
Oregon LNG filed an appeal with the state asking that the decision be remanded based on perceived bias of Lee, Huhtala and Birkby and the incorrect interpretation of local land-use laws.
Mike Connors, the attorney representing Oregon LNG and its affiliate, Oregon Pipeline Company, argued in front of LUBA May 8 that past statements indicated a level of bias among the three commissioners. He pointed to statements made during their May 2010 election campaigns and past opposition to natural gas import/export projects.
Jeff Bennet, the county's legal counsel, stated that the commissioners were able to set aside personal opinions and made their decision based on all the facts that were presented. County planners recommended the permits be denied based on the requirements for the various zoning districts the proposed pipeline would cross. They also presented environmental impacts and required protection for threatened and endangered species.
Oregon LNG filed land-use permits for the pipeline in October 2009. After a county hearings officer approved the application, opponents appealed the ruling to county commissioners. The board, which was made up of four different commissioners than the current board, approved the consolidated application. It was later brought back for reconsideration by the new board when the three new members took office in January 2011. Oregon LNG fought that decision as far as the Oregon Supreme Court, which chose not to hear the case, reverting it back to the county.
Clatsop County commissioners are considered a quasi-judicial decision-making body for land-use matters. LUBA considered a letter to the editor and statements made by Huhtala in 2010.
"While we do not agree that these statements in and of themselves, are adequate to show Huhtala has the kind of bias against Oregon Pipeline Company's proposal or LNG proposals in general that compel his recusal in this matter," the opinion states, "they are sufficient to call his ability to be an impartial quasi-judicial decision maker ... into question."
During the October hearing, Huhtala addressed the issue of bias when raised by Connors.
"My reasonable concerns don't cause me to prejudge the situation," he said. "This is a complex application. There is nothing that prevents me from assessing the facts under review."
LUBA found Huhtala's vote to reconsider the application in 2011 to be the ultimate indication of bias. They determined that coupled with his past statements it showed he couldn't be impartial in the October hearing.
"Huhtala's action to take the additional step of pulling that decision back for reconsideration, when viewed with all the other evidence (shows) that he is not capable of being impartial in this matter," the opinion states.