HERMISTON - Business owners in the west-end of Umatilla County may be excused from a zoning change they've fought for months that would limit the size of their businesses.

The change, mandated by the state, reclassifies areas zoned for commercial and industrial uses outside city limits and urban growth boundaries - areas not in city limits but where city services such as water and sewer extend - as rural areas. As a result, building sizes would be limited to under 35,000 square feet.

The zoning affects more than 300 businesses countywide. In the Hermiston area, where business owners organized to oppose the change, more than 100 businesses are located on about 2,000 acres affected by the change.

The Greater Highway 395 Association and the city of Hermiston have proposed filing an exception to the law to keep the zoning laws as they are for two areas in the west end: More than 800 acres along the strip of 395 between the cities of Hermiston and Umatilla, and more than 1,100 acres near Hinkle Road and the J.R. Simplot food processing facility.

The average building size in those areas is between 45,000 square feet and 50,000 square feet.

Public comment on the exception will be taken tonight. A decision on the issue is possible, although not certain.

If the exception is denied by the county or the state, which has final approval, economic development in the west-end of the county will be severely hindered, said David Hadley, a real estate lawyer in Hermiston who co-founded the Greater Highway 395 Association.

Established businesses will be unable to expand their properties, and as for new businesses, "those folks will drive through and never look" at the Hermiston area as a possible place to set up shop, he said.

The issue of the exception is more urgent now because of the pending closure of the Simplot food processing plant, expected in November. Any buyer of the facility will need reassurance that he could renovate and expand the facility, Michael Robinson, Hermiston's city attorney, testified last week at a county workshop.

Tonight's joint meeting shows the county's willingness to work with the west-end area, Hadley said.

Notices of the zoning change were mailed out to affected landowners in February. Between then and now, local business owners and city leaders attempted to convince the state to amend its rules requiring the county to clearly designate areas outside city limits as either rural or urban - which is what determines the restrictions on building size.

While the meeting between the group and the state went well, Hadley said, everyone agreed it would be too burdensome and time-consuming to make a change to the state code. Instead, it was thought an exception to the law would be the best way to "do no harm" to the areas in the west-end, Hadley said.

While the two areas in the west-end are the only ones under consideration for an exception, other areas in the county will fall under the new zoning change, said Patty Perry, senior planner for the county Planning Department.

"We will still eventually need to work with them," she said.

Those areas include a strip of Highway 11 north of Milton-Freewater and lands scattered around the interchange of Interstate 84 and Pendleton.

What's happening?

• What: Joint meeting of the Umatilla County commissioners and the county's Planning Commission to consider an exception to the state's land-use planning laws for the area along Highway 395 - north of Hermiston and north of I-84 near the Hinkle Railroad and Simplot food processing plant.

• When: 7 tonight.

• Where: Umatilla County Justice Center, Media Room.

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