The U.S. House of Representatives authorized two key Tri-City economic development initiatives in the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act.
The house passed the bill Friday on a vote of 375 to 34. The legislation is expected to be considered in the Senate next week.
The bill authorizes defense spending, including pay raises for troops, as well as initiatives to bolster the Tri-Cities.
One requires the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to account for its Columbia River shoreline holdings in Benton and Franklin counties and the other lifts restrictions that have prevented the Port of Benton from developing former Hanford area land near Washington State University Tri-Cities.
U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, included both provisions in the bill last spring. The final document is subject to revision but Congress has an unbroken history of approving the defense spending bill.
“I am pleased that the legislation included priorities for Central Washington, including strong levels of Hanford funding and land provisions to boost local economic development at the Port of Benton and the ... shoreline,” Newhouse said in a statement.
Columbia River shoreline
The shoreline portion could bolster the case for the federal government to return control of 34 miles of Columbia River shoreline. The federal agency has held the land for more than half a century, apparently acquiring it through a combination of eminent domain and market acquisitions.
The defense authorization act directs the Secretary of the Army, acting through the Chief of the Army Corps of Engineeers, to detail its holdings and ow they were acquired. The report is due 180 days after the act is enacted.
Leading efforts to restore the the shoreline to local control are former U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, former Kennewick Mayor Brad Fisher and Gary Petersen, of the Tri-City Development Council.
Advocates say the Columbia River should be managed to provide economic, recreational and other benefits to the Tri-Cities.
Critics fear local control is a guise to turn the shoreline over to private development.
The Benton and Franklin county commissions, the city councils of Kennewick, Richland and Pasco, and the commissions of the ports of Kennewick, Benton and Pasco have expressed varying degrees of support for pursuing the shoreline plan.
The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation has expressed concern that a transfer of control will affect its treaty rights. It also has raised concerns about possible impacts on burial ground and archaeological sites.
TRIDEC’s Petersen was pleased to see the shoreline language survive in the defense authorization bill. He said knowing what land the Corps owns and what the federal government paid for it is a critical next step to deciding if the community wants to pursue its return.
Once the community gets clarity on what the Corps owns and how it was acquired, it can decide if it wants to pursue Congressional approval for a fee simple transfer.
“Now that we have this language, it’s important for us to go back and talk to the cities and counties,” he said.
Port of Benton benefits
The bill allow the Port of Benton to market land near Washington State University Tri-Cities to private investors without the threat of federal interference hanging over it.
The U.S. Maritime Administration transferred 71 acres to the port in 1996, but retained the right to approve all leases for five years or longer. The land originally was part of Hanford’s 3000 Area but was not directly used for plutonium production.
The Department of Energy transferred the land to the Maritime Administration for a boat-building operation. That effort failed but the land retained deed restrictions, such as lease limits of five years.
The uncertainty over those federal reviews has turned away numerous investors, said Diahann Howard, director of economic development and government affairs for the Port of Benton.
“We’ve been working on this initiative for five years,” she said, noting that the private sector has invested some $170 million to develop apartments and other projects on adjoining sites.
“We’re almost the eyesore,” she said, referring the the property south of University Drive and north of Stevens Center.
Howard said the port routinely hears from businesses interested in the property, but they invariably back off when they hear about the restrictions.
“This is a huge opportunity for our community,” she said.